Weak court system nearing crisis point: US legal expert

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 March, 2006, 12:00am

China is headed towards a legal crisis because its weak institutions cannot address an increasing number of grievances, especially from farmers and other underprivileged groups, according to a US expert on the legal system.

'The government is at a crossroads now, maybe approaching a crisis, because its institutions don't work well enough,' Jerome Cohen, a professor at the New York University School of Law, told the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club.

'At this point, the leadership is getting the worst of both possible worlds because it is talking about law, it is creating expectations and those expectations are more often than not being dashed.'

Beijing had pledged to establish the rule of law, but the country lacked an independent judiciary and the official channel for grievances, the xinfang (letters and visits) office, was inadequate since only a small percentage of people had their complaints addressed, said Professor Cohen, who has taught on the mainland and advised the government.

Guangdong People's Congress chairwoman Huang Liman called last week for improvements to the petition system to make it more responsive to the people.

Professor Cohen said the mainland was still experimenting with village elections and the system did not allow for removal of local leaders. Guangdong's Taishi village tried and failed last year to oust its headman for alleged corruption.

'If you're a farmer and you feel badly abused, you have very few outlets,' Professor Cohen said. 'Today, if only out of desperation, more people are trying to go to county courts. But more often than not they are turned away.'

Mainland leaders faced a dilemma since implementing the rule of law ultimately meant an erosion of the Communist Party's power, Professor Cohen said.

He urged legal reforms such as giving the Supreme People's Court the right to appoint judges, and national and provincial funding for courts to stem local influence. Witnesses should appear in court and face cross-examination.

Professor Cohen raised the possibility that a future mainland leader might support real changes to implement the rule of law. 'The current leadership is very uptight and conservative about law reform. There are many good law reform proposals - substantive, procedural, institutional - on the agenda, but they're going nowhere,' he said.

Among the few areas of progress was an attempt to improve the application of the death penalty. State media reported on Monday that all death penalty appeals would be heard in open court from the second half of this year.

But Professor Cohen said the guideline was unlikely to be universally applied as it might reveal the number of executions, now regarded as a state secret.