BEIJING — China's ruling Communist Party announced steps Thursday to improve judicial independence and check political interference in the courts in hopes to boost legal justice and alleviate social tensions. Yet, observers say it has failed to produce meaningful legal checks on the ruling party itself.
"There is only the rhetoric commitment with no mechanism to make constitutional rulings," said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The communique, released after the party's Central Committee concluded its secret annual meeting in Beijing, reaffirmed the party's pledge to rule the country in accordance with Chinese constitution and its law.
But legal scholars and political analysts say the constitution in practice has little constraints on the party's actions and that the promise sounds even ironic as Beijing is increasingly using criminal charges to persecute political dissidents, social activists, rights lawyers and writers.
"The party's dictatorship comes before ruling in accordance of the law," Beijing-based historian and political analyst Zhang Lifan said, noting the term used by Beijing has different connotations from the Western notions of independent judiciary and that all must conform to the law.
"It is a tool for the dictatorship," Zhang said. "China's legal reform will only serve to strengthen the party rule but not to weaken it."
Still, many say the latest round of legal reform — as spelled out in Thursday's communique — can be positive.
Among the changes, the party leadership said legal experts should be summoned to review major policies in the making process, files should be kept to record any involvement by party officials in legal matters, courts should be removed from the jurisdiction of local officials to boost independence, and judges should be chosen from legal professionals.
Those points will guide the work of the party-led government in the upcoming year, as bureaucrats will draw up detailed rules to execute the orders.
Xie Youping, a legal scholar at the Shanghai-based Fudan University, said some of the measures are already being phased in, but that keeping files on officials who have intervened in legal matters is a new proposal.
"It will make officials more cautious, and it is a measure to safeguard judicial independence," Xie said.
Steve Tsang, senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said the checks can reduce abuse of law at the local level. "When you have local-level cadres doing something that breaches the law, they should be answerable to the law, and they cannot interfere with the local judiciary."
Members of the Chinese public have long complained about judicial corruption and that they lack legal venues to seek redress for wrongdoings by local governments, such as unfair land seizures. And social tensions stemming from lack of justice have become a major source of unrest in China.
Huang Qi, a long-time advocate for people with grievances against their local governments, said the proposals would alleviate some tensions but is far from building an independent judiciary.
"The governments — at both central and local levels — belong to the same interest group, and it is the party's absolute leadership over the judiciary that has caused legal injustice," Huang said. "The web of interests is highly intricate, and it is extremely difficult to severe the courts from that web."
Some have cast doubt on the feasibility of the reform measures.
For example, legal intervention can be done without any trace because China's low-level bureaucrats are highly skilled at tacitly figuring out the desires of their supervisors, thus shielding them from legal accountability, legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong said.
"More importantly, what the party says and what it does can be completely different," Zhang said.