One key question after the Communist Party's national congress last month is whether the authorities will continue to use the courts as merely a tool for greater control, or allow them to play the role they should as guardians of the rule of law.
A flurry of developments in three high-profile cases in the past week is sending worrying mixed signals.
The one that attracted the most international attention was the sentencing of Chen Kegui, a nephew of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, to 39 months in jail after a brief, essentially closed-door hearing in Linyi, Shandong. He was originally charged with "intentional homicide" for injuring several armed officials with a knife as they tried to raid his home following his uncle's escape in April. The charge was later reduced to "intentionally inflicting harm" but family members and lawyers argued vehemently that he was only acting in self-defence.
Chen Guangcheng, now in the United States, had called for a fair trial for his nephew for months, but lawyer's appointed by Chen Kegui's father did not succeed in meeting the young defendant. Then, on November 30, Chen Kegui was convicted. His parents - two key witnesses to the clash - were barred from attending the hearing.
The local authorities claimed that Chen was properly represented by two legal aid lawyers from Shandong, but family members said he had never accepted their services.
If the trial of Chen Kegui represents continued ignorance of the law by lower-level courts, or the abuse of the courts by local authorities, the latest twists in the case of Beijing lawyer Li Zhuang may offer some welcome news.
Li was jailed for 2-1/2 years in January 2010 after being convicted of perjury for "coaching" alleged triad boss Gong Gangmo to claim that he only confessed because he was tortured. Li's trial took place against the backdrop of Chongqing's anti-triad campaign, a pet project of fallen party chief Bo Xilai, which saw thousands arrested and hundreds tried for engaging in triad activities and was criticised as showing blatant disregard for due process.
Li's sentence was reduced to 1-1/2 years on appeal after he confessed, something he said he did in the mistaken belief that it would secure his immediate release. Li completed his sentence in June last year and filed his first request for a retrial in December. Officials from Chongqing No1 Intermediate People's Court finally met Li on November 29 to hear his claim, the first step in the process that will determine whether he will be granted a retrial.
Meanwhile, the latest development in the case of Zhejiang entrepreneur Wu Ying is a cause for head-scratching. Jinhua Intermediate People's Court held hearings on November 27 on two debt recovery cases in which Wu is the plaintiff, Xinhua reported. The hearings were held in the jail where Wu is serving a suspended death sentence for illegal fundraising with intent to defraud.
She was originally sentenced to death, but her life was spared in May after many people pleaded on her behalf, saying that someone should not be executed for a commercial crime, especially when the borrowing of funds by private entrepreneurs is a murky area.
On the surface the two cases are about Wu's company, Bensi, recovering money from two debtors over the sale of 14 pieces of real estate just before she was arrested. But Wu's father said she was coerced into signing the sales contracts in the first place, and the current proceedings were brought to make her acknowledge title transfer to the debtors once they cleared their debts. Wu's father said she had bought the properties for more than 100 million yuan (HK$123 million) and would not have willingly sold them for little more than 30 million yuan.
How Wu's assets were handled after she was arrested in 2007 has always been a sore point in the case and has raised the question of corruption. Wu's lawyer told the media she did not know about the hearings when he met her on November 25, two days before they were held.
The three cases all highlight the need for mainland courts to be seen to be fair and free of political influence.
On Tuesday, Vice-President Xi Jinping pledged to promote the authority of the constitution and the rule of law and said authorities must "allow the overwhelming masses to fully believe in the law".
That was the rhetoric. Now it is time for action. Allowing the courts to rule according to the law is the only way tobuild belief.
Ng Tze-wei is a former South China Morning Post reporter