Free judiciary from party reins

The prostitution scandal involving Shanghai judges shone light on the legal system's rot, but graft will persist until the courts are independent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 August, 2013, 5:50am

For any ordinary mainlander who is neither rich nor well-connected but finds himself ensnared in the mainland's corruption-riddled judiciary, he is most likely ready to admit defeat, particularly if both the plaintiff and his lawyer turn out to be relatives of a powerful judge.

But an operator of a budget hotel in Shanghai has refused to take defeat lying down. Armed with spy gadgets including a pair of miniature cameras mounted on glasses and eavesdropping devices purchased online, he spent more than a year following a judge who was known as a regular patron of nightclubs and prostitutes.

In June, the operator hit pay dirt when he obtained copies of surveillance video inside a government-run hotel showing the judge, Zhao Minghua, his boss Chen Xueming, and several other colleagues and business associates having fun with nightclub hostesses, singing karaoke songs and later having prostitutes visit their hotel rooms.

On August 1, the hotel sleuth who refused to give his real name posted an edited version of the tape online. Not only did he exact his sweet revenge on the judge whom he had followed for more than a year and often met in passing, but also triggered a national uproar over the country's court system.

One commentary, which said the judges may have slept with prostitutes but had raped the law, was widely circulated online, reflecting the depth of anger among mainlanders.

The Shanghai authorities reacted swiftly. On Tuesday, Chen and Zhao, chief and deputy chief of the No1 Civil Court of the Shanghai Higher People's Court, and another court official who was ironically charged with the task of investigating other court officials for corruption, were sacked and stripped of their Communist Party membership.

The fourth man filmed, Wang Guojun, a deputy chief of the No5 Civil Court, was placed on probation and will merely lose his job title. According to state media, Wang was saved by the skin of his teeth because he drank too much and went straight to sleep on the night in question.

Shanghai party secretary Han Zheng said the case of a few corrupt officials had blackened the image of the municipal court, the judiciary and the city of Shanghai.

On Thursday, Cui Yadong, the party chief and acting president of the Shanghai Higher People's Court, announced a six-month "moral education campaign" to ensure other court officials behaved properly.

More interestingly, he said the scandal had given "domestic and foreign hostile forces" an opportunity to "attack the Communist Party, the government, the socialist judiciary, the Shanghai party and government cadres".

Cui's remarks, made to the full complement of Shanghai court officials and reported by state media, were unlikely to have been just his own words, but a reflection of the thinking of the nation's top judges.

Sadly, that probably means that instead of seizing the opportunity to push for judicial reform, the leaders have again resorted to the time-honoured approach of blaming a few bad apples within the system and "domestic and foreign hostile forces" for fanning the flames.

Despite repeated pledges to strengthen rule of law, the mainland's progress in this regard has been very slow, mainly because of its refusal to allow an independent judiciary. As the party controls the appointments of judges, prosecutors and policemen, this has given rise to rampant corruption and injustices across the judicial system.

A popular saying has it that many judges solicit bribes from both the plaintiffs and defendants and rule in favour of the side that pays the bigger amount.

According to the person who brought down the Shanghai judges, Zhao alone owns at least four apartments in a city that has some of the most expensive residential property.

On a positive note, while many mainlanders saluted the man who gathered the evidence for his tenacity and courage, others have apparently drawn inspiration from his action. According to mainland media reports, online sales of spy gadgets including miniature cameras and eavesdropping devices have soared since the scandal came to light.