CHINA HAS INAUGURATED its first two circuit courts, one in Shenyang and the other in Shenzen, to spread the workload of the Supreme Court. This echo of Imperial China is one of the early pilot schemes as judicial reform kicks off in one-third of the country’s 33 provinces.
The most intriguing aspect of the proposed reforms is President Xi Jinping’s gamble on increasing the independence and professionalism of the judiciary, which has hitherto been an extension of the Party’s legal arm. But trusted courts are one of the essential requirements if the Party is not to corrode from the inside.
As this Bystander has noted before this first step in judicial reform will only effectively apply at local and municipal levels. The Party will retain its sway over national and provincial courts through the Central Politics and Law Commission, the Party body that oversees the legal system in its broadest sense — from police to prosecutors, judges, internal security, surveillance and prison administration.
Nor should anyone be under any illusion that judicial independence even at local level heralds the introduction of the rule of law. Xi is pursuing rule by law, altogether a different thing. No legal proceedings on which the Party has a national interest will be left to the vicissitudes of independent judges. Judges will be expected to declare their loyalty to the Party, and to take preemptive action in cases of threats to state security.
Where judicial reform will make an impact is that local judges will no longer be appointed and funded by local officials but by provincial or national authorities. That should break the commonly cosy relationship between local officials and local courts. It would then be more difficult for corrupt local officials to remain immune from accountability, a widespread popular grievance.
Not only would that give Xi’s anti-corruption drive some mass support but it will also provide some ‘flies’ whose squashing would warn a new set of ‘tigers’ now Xi is pushing his anti-corruption drive against police and security officials including Zhou Yongkang, the former and much feared head of the country’s security apparatus and the most senior official to date brought down by Xi’s anti-corruption drive.
More independent local courts would also provide a safety valve for the social unrest that has been escalating to the Party’s concern, without the reforms going nearly far enough to satisfy legal activists. It could also create courts that are more robust in their handling of commercial disputes, which would be to the benefit of foreign businesses operating in China and which have long felt local courts to be stacked against them.
As with all reform, it will proceed slowly; what is starting now is the first pilot schemes. The target date for broad based implementation of judicial reform is 2020. The goal is to reinforce the Party’s legitimacy to maintain its monopoly on political power by showing it can govern cleanly and fairly.