The Law of Rule

China's Judiciary After the Fourth Plenum

The Great Hall of the People is silhouetted against the setting sun in Beijing, October 23, 2014. Kim Kyung-Hoon / Courtesy Reuters

China’s quest to establish greater rule of law started with the country’s 15th Party Congress in 1997. It was an expedient move: China's economic machine was kicking into high gear, and ascension to the World Trade Organization was imminent. Both would require a legal regime that, at the very least, protected property rights and regulated commercial dealings. Since then, the legal profession has boomed in China. The country boasts an extensive network of courts and numerous official channels through which citizens can seek redress for grievances against the government. At the same time, however, corruption has exploded.

And so it was with a sense of urgency that the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee meeting convened last week to unveil comprehensive legal reforms meant to buttress Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature anticorruption campaign. Many of the announced reforms echo those in the Five-Year Reform Plan of the Supreme People's Court that came down this past July, and pilot programs are already underway in Shanghai, Guangdong, and a few other key areas.

The Fourth Plenum reform outline provides for a stronger, more independent, and more professionalized judiciary. The first major change is the deeper separation of the courts from party interference, a key nexus of corruption. Judges will be chosen from the legal profession instead of the ranks of party members without any training in law. The infrastructure of the judiciary will be built out, with an additional level of circuit courts under the Supreme People’s Court. Legal jurisdictions may be rearranged so as to not overlap with local jurisdictions, decreasing the influence of the latter.

The second major change is the increased scrutiny of judicial decisions. Judges will have lifetime accountability for major opinions and will be disciplined for opinions deemed to be incorrect. These measures augment the provisions in the Five-Year Reform Plan for greater individual decision-making by judges, who must currently factor the opinions of his or her peers and superiors into final decisions. Beijing recognizes

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