Chinese leaders take ‘unprecedented’ steps to clean up mystery of vanished supreme court documents

  • Police, prosecutors and anti-corruption investigators to work with party’s top legal body to get to bottom of scandal
  • Rare step takes investigation out of court’s hands after its initial denials triggered a public outcry
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 10:42am

The Chinese authorities have taken the rare step of setting up a top-level investigation team to look into the mysterious disappearance of legal documents from the country’s highest court.

The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Communist Party’s top body on legal affairs, announced Tuesday night that it would lead a joint task force with representatives from the anti-corruption watchdog, prosecutors and police to investigate the case, which has rocked the legal profession.

“A joint panel has been set up to investigate in accordance with the law and [party] discipline,” a statement posted on the commission’s website said. “The relevant facts will be made public as soon as they have been confirmed.”

Legal experts said that the move was an “unprecedented” signal of the leadership’s determination to get to the bottom of the case.

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Last month it emerged that documents relating to a long-running contract dispute concerning the ownership of a mine in Shaanxi province had vanished from the Supreme People’s Court office of judge Wang Linqing in 2016.

The following year Wang ruled in favour of private businessman Zhao Faqi against the state-owned Xian Institute of Geological and Mineral Exploration, awarding him 13.7 million yuan (US$2 million) compensation. But the disappearance of the documents has delayed the implementation of the verdict.

The establishment of the new task force means it will effectively supersede an ongoing internal investigation by the Supreme People’s Court, which had initially denied there was anything amiss until Cui Yongyuan, a well-known television host, broke the news via social media.

Cui also released a video of a man, believed to be Wang, suggesting that the closed circuit television in the office had been sabotaged.

The scandal generated a heated online debate about how the documents could have gone missing within the tightly guarded compound of the supreme court, and whether it was a deliberate act of sabotage.

Wang Jiangyu, an associate law professor at the National University of Singapore, said the unusual move underlined the desire of the top leadership to clean up the mess.

“Such a move is definitely unprecedented,” he said. “Only the Party Central or Politburo Standing Committee can make such decision to set up the joint task force.”

The Supreme People’s Court has been subject to scrutiny in the past but previous investigations were more focused on corruption cases and were solely conducted by anti-graft watchdogs.

Two of these investigations ended with Huang Songyou and Xi Xiaoming, both vice-presidents of the court, being jailed for life for corruption in 2010 and 2017 respectively.

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The new task force is made up of all state and party law enforcement bodies except for the Supreme People’s Court itself.

The announcement also included a telephone number to encourage whistle-blowers and tip-offs that could help the investigation.

Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of Peking University’s Clean Government Centre, believed the involvement of police and prosecutors would broaden the investigation.

“The new panel will have greater authority and is able to investigate matters related to senior officials including top judges,” said Zhuang.

“It can look into a wide range of issues, including legal ones like breach of duty and corruption.”

The Supreme People’s Court last month reluctantly nudged its internal disciplinary branch to look into the matter, but only after the huge public outcry following its initial denial that the documents had disappeared.

A statement issued by the court late last month suggested its internal investigation would focus on “discipline violations” and did not mention other legal problems.

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After the Commission published its announcement on Tuesday, the Supreme People Court almost immediately followed with its own statement pledging “absolute support”.

Zhuang said the decision to announce the investigation at this stage was “rare and it seems to be a result of public pressure”.

The authorities usually prefer to keep the news that senior figures are under investigation secret for as long as possible to avoid embarrassment and public scrutiny.

“The investigation now is more about giving a satisfactory answer to the public,” Zhuang added.

The scandal coincides with efforts to shore up confidence in China’s hard-hit private sector.

As the country’s economic growth decelerated in the past year, President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders have repeatedly pledged to step up legal protections for private businesses and find new ways to help them.