Chinese lawyers cautious on new head of top court

AFP, BEIJING

Sat, Mar 16, 2013 - Page 6

A former legal academic yesterday was named head of China’s top court amid calls for the country’s legal system to be given more independence.

However, wary lawyers said Zhou Qiang (周強) was unlikely to grant the courts greater freedom, although they added he was likely to be an improvement on his predecessor.

Zhou, 52, formerly the top party official in the southern province of Hunan, who has a master’s degree in law, was appointed head of the Supreme People’s Court at the National People’s Congress, China’s rubberstamp parliament.

The Supreme Court is the highest court of review in all legal cases and approves all death sentences, but like all courts in China reaches verdicts with the guidance of officials from the ruling Communist Party.

Senior communist officials regularly promise to promote the rule of law, but the reality remains that political interference in trials is common and acquittals are extremely rare.

Zhou replaces Wang Shengjun (王勝俊), a career official with no legal experience, who drew lawyers’ ire for saying that the interests of the party came ahead of the constitution and the law after his appointment in 2008.

Legal specialists said Zhou could prove to be an improvement, but would be heavily constrained by his relatively low rank in the party hierarchy — he is not a member of its 25-strong politburo, only of the larger and lower Central Committee.

“His legal education means he might place more emphasis on using the law,” said Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強), one of China’s most celebrated human rights lawyers, who has represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未).

However, he added: “Basically Zhou is a politician ... whether he promotes the development of China’s legal system depends on other officials.”

“I think there may be positive change, because he has a great educational background,” said He Weifang (賀衛方), a professor of law at Peking University, who studied with Zhou in the 1980s.

However, Zhou’s reputation among liberals was damaged by his handling of the death of Tiananmen activist Li Wangyang (李旺陽), who was found hanged in a hospital room in Hunan last year, with activists accusing local officials of foul play.

Human rights lawyer Li Fanping (李方平), who has been detained for taking on sensitive cases, was skeptical, saying: “His appointment is a slight improvement, but nothing fundamental will change ... he still represents the party.”