Judicial Reform in China

How Progress Serves the Party

Police in front of a court in Jinan, China, August 2013. Jason Lee / REUTERS

On January 14, Zhou Qiang, the chief justice of China’s Supreme People’s Court, rejected judicial independence in a speech to jurists in Beijing. China “should not fall into the trap of the West’s erroneous thinking and the independence of the judiciary,” Zhou said, and Chinese courts must resolutely resist constitutional democracy and the separation of powers. For the many observers who viewed Zhou as a reformer, his comments seemed like a betrayal. “This is truly a statement that wrecks the nation and harms the people,” He Weifang, a law professor at Beijing University and a popular liberal reformist, wrote in an online post.

Unlike in Western countries, where the separation of powers means that the judiciary should refrain from commenting on political matters, in China, there are no such barriers: The Communist Party controls all aspects of government. Nevertheless, legal reform has been a key theme for the party in recent years. A few days before Zhou made his remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed that national political and legal organs should “safeguard national security and social stability, improve the credibility of the judiciary, enhance people’s sense of security and satisfaction [and] build a … just and standardized legal environment.”

To some observers, Beijing’s recent efforts to professionalize the judiciary have suggested that China was moving toward enshrining the rule of law. Zhou’s remarks, together with his comment last February that China would not match Western notions of judicial independence and the separation of powers, have demonstrated that Beijing’s reform agenda is not quite so straightforward. Judicial independence remains off-limits for discussion, but the Chinese judiciary and legal professions are nevertheless developing at a steady pace. Beijing’s goal is to establish a robust legal system that can effectively govern China’s political and social life without ever challenging the Communist Party’s core policies and ideology.

Zhou Qiang, the head of China's Supreme People's Court, in Beijing, March 2016.
Zhou Qiang, the head of China's Supreme People's Court, in Beijing, March 2016.  CHINA DAILY / REUTERS



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