China has curtailed the power of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Political and Legal Committee, a secretive body overseeing the security services, to interfere in most legal cases, academics with knowledge of the situation said — a significant reform at a time of public discontent over miscarriages of justice.
The move, which has not been made public by the party, but has been announced in internal meetings, would clip the wings of the party’s highest authority on judicial and security matters.
Interference from the committee has led to many wrongful convictions, many of which have been widely reported in the media and even highlighted by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) as an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.
Part of a package of legal reforms, the move signals a willingness by Xi’s government to reform its court system as long as it does not threaten the party’s overall control.
China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, will deliver its work report to parliament today, which could detail some of these reforms.
Yet the party would still have final say over politically sensitive cases, such as those involving ethnic issues and senior politicians — like the disgraced former Chongquing party secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來), who was last year found guilty of bribery, corruption and abuse of power, and jailed for life — and would use the courts to convict citizens who challenge its authority.
Chen Guangzhong (陳光中), who took part in discussions with officials on reforming the criminal law system after the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, said he has seen an internal document saying “there can be no coordination allowed on cases.”
Judges typically convene with police, prosecutors and officials from China’s Political and Legal Committee to coordinate on verdicts for cases that will have a “political influence” or relate to social stability. These offences range from murder to rape to corruption.
“This is a problem unique to China,” Chen, a law professor from the China University of Political Science and Law, said. “If ruling parties in the West interfere with the judiciary, if they intervene, they’ll have to step down. But the recognition of this problem has not been consistent.”
Chen, who helped draft the latest amendment to China’s Criminal Procedure Code in 2012, said the party has started to curtail the power of the Political and Legal Committee, but added there are few details to this guideline.
Committee head Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱), who was at a meeting with the prosecutor’s office, said the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s graft watchdog, will also not be allowed to intervene in corruption cases once they are transferred to state prosecutors.
Much of the previous abuses to the rule of law can be attributed to former security chief Zhou Yongkang (周永康), whose term “caused a big setback to the judicial system”, said Jiang Ping (江平), a deputy director of the National People’s Congress Law Committee from 1988 to 1993.
Zhou had expanded his role into one of the most powerful and controversial fiefdoms in the one-party government. During his term, Zhou said the courts should put the party’s interests above the people and the constitution, according to Jiang.
Sources say that Zhou is under effective house arrest while the party investigates corruption allegations against him.
In a sign of the Chinese government’s interest in legal reform, the Supreme People’s Court said in November last year that it would eliminate the use of torture to extract confessions, stop local officials from interfering in legal decisions and allow Chinese judges to make their own decisions.
Various Chinese government departments are “actively studying” reducing the number of crimes that carry the death penalty, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong (李保東) told reporters during the Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue last month.
Chen said that several officials in the courts, prosecutors and the police are resisting the changes to the death penalty. He said an announcement on dropping the death penalty for up to half a dozen “non-violent” crimes could be due this year.
Capital punishment applies to 55 offences in China, including fraud and illegal money-lending.
However, China will not scrap the death penalty for those found guilty of corruption, which the government is waging a renewed campaign against, Chen said.
“China now has some major corruption cases, and [if the government] were to scrap the death penalty, the ordinary people will not agree,” he said.
The San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which seeks the release of political prisoners in China, estimates that 3,000 people were executed in 2012.
For comparison, 43 people were executed that year in the US, according to the US Death Penalty Information Center.
The legal reforms reflect a desire by Zhou Qiang (周強), who took over as president of China’s Supreme People’s Court a year ago, to handle cases in a more professional way, and tackle wrongful convictions, academics said.
“Zhou Qiang seems a serious political character, he’s not only well connected, he’s legally sophisticated,” said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. “But he’s not all-powerful, and whatever he says doesn’t necessarily take place at the local level. This is a continuing struggle.”