Guangdong chief justice calls for reform of China's 'Soviet' court system

Head of Guangdong Higher People's Court calls for less interference from superiors and local governments, and changes to Soviet-style model

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 6:32pm

Guangdong’s top judge has criticised the mainland’s court system as unsuited  to a modern economy and called for steps to reduce interference by judicial  superiors and local governments.

Zheng E, head of the Guangdong Higher People’s Court, told China Newsweek the judicial system operates under an outdated Soviet-style model that treats the courts as just another government agency.

In it, judges’ decisions must be cleared by court superiors and their budgets are administered by local bureaucrats, a potential source of interference.

“Our current trial mechanism derives from the one built under the planned economy, similar to the trial mechanism in the Soviet Union,” Zheng said. “The current system doesn’t suit the developments of our times.”

As the mainland moves towards a more market-oriented economy, the demand for new social institutions to mediate civil disputes has increased, Zheng said. But this responsibility continues to be shouldered by the courts, occupying 90 per cent of their dockets.

Zheng praised the pilot schemes in Foshan  city and Shenzhen’s Futian district, where judges have been allowed to rule their own cases without seeking guidance from superiors.

The pilot programmes were designed to “hold judges directly accountable for their verdicts”, he said. They make the judiciary more professional and put jurists on the path to becoming “real judges”.

He also said the mainland courts’ financial dependence on local governments makes them prone to interference.

Zheng cautioned that ensuring a fair and impartial judiciary would take commitment from the highest levels of government.

The judge’s remarks come just four months into Zhou Qiang’s  tenure as president of the mainland’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court.

Zhou’s appointment has raised hopes for judicial reform. Unlike his predecessor, Zhou holds a university degree in civil law and has worked in the Ministry of Justice.

In a May article in the People’s Court Daily, the country’s  second most senior judge Shen Deyong  complained that judges “face intervention and pressure from all sides”. He called wrongful convictions “an unprecedented challenge”.

Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher at Chinese University, said that making the judiciary more professional has been a particular theme since President Xi Jinping  took power.

“There may be a generational shift in thinking about the role of the judiciary in China,” he said. “But that co-exists with a fairly deep-seated ideological antipathy towards the idea of the courts of being an independent arbiter.

“That’s going to continue to create problems.”