18 November 2019
Frustrated by an inadequate system of petitions, Chinese citizens seeking justice may increasingly look to the courts, to which the Fourth Plenum has announced wide-ranging reforms. Photo: Bloomberg
Frustrated by an inadequate system of petitions, Chinese citizens seeking justice may increasingly look to the courts, to which the Fourth Plenum has announced wide-ranging reforms. Photo: Bloomberg

China aims to use courts to curb abuse of official power

China has no opposition parties, no free press, no free Internet and tightly restricts civil society. How is it to curb abuses and injustices in the face of the absolute power of the Communist Party?

It must use the legal system – that was the answer given by the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, which recently closed in Beijing.

“The party will improve application of the constitution, ensure justice in the court system and raise public awareness of the need for society to abide by rules,” the declaration at the conclusion of the meeting said. What does this mean?

The breakneck development of the last 36 years has brought enormous wealth to the state and many companies and individuals – but at enormous cost to others, in terms of environmental destruction and loss of jobs, land and property. What recourse have those who have suffered such losses to a fair hearing and reasonable compensation and those who want to appeal against a miscarriage of justice?

In the absence of free media, opposition parties and an effective petition system, they turn to the law courts.

In the 1980s, China’s courts were handling 700,000 cases a year; last year, the figure was 14 million, a 20-fold increase in less than 35 years. The courts are completely overloaded and the public very dissatisfied.

During that time, the legal system has greatly improved, with better laws and thousands of better trained judges, lawyers and court officials.

But the system is subject to widespread abuse by party officials who interfere directly in cases and order judges how to rule, and money and connections are often used to produce a desired verdict.

“The greatest challenge is leading cadres,” said Tung Lihua, the only representative of the legal profession who attended the plenum. “They have power and are accustomed to using it in any way they want. How can they quickly change this way of thinking?

“There are three arms of the justice system – public security, prosecutors and judges. As the final arbiter, the courts should be the most authoritative. Sometimes they are the weakest,” he said.

Zheng E, chief of the Guangdong Supreme Court, said that, in the past, senior officials telephoned judges to ask about a case.

“But, in recent years, this has happened less,” Zheng said. “Most judges have a better sense of procedure. If a leader wants to understand a case, he must follow the proper procedure and make an official request to the supervisory department of the court.” This leaves a written record of the leader’s inquiry that can be traced.

Zheng said miscarriages of justice occurred because courts did not use their own judgment but simply accepted the evidence presented to them by prosecutors. The most common cause of these injustices is confession under torture, he said.

In September this year, an intermediate court in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, freed Xu Hui, whom it had sentenced to death in 2001 with a two-year reprieve, for the rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman. Following 13 years of appeals, Xu walked out of prison after prosecutors found evidence obtained by Zhuhai police to be unreliable and that the evidence conflicted with Xu’s confession.

A court in Inner Mongolia will hear a more shocking case this month. Hugejilutu, an 18-year-old worker at a woollen mill in Hohhot, was executed in June 1996 after being found guilty of the rape and murder of a worker at the mill in April that year, despite a lack of evidence.

In October 2005, Zhao Zhihong confessed to 10 murders, including this one. His trial has been suspended. Hugejilutu’s parents have been to Beijing 20 times and written more than 70 letters to the authorities, without a response. Sometimes, they were forcibly intercepted and taken back to Hohhot. The police officer who charged the young man is now the number two in the city’s Public Security Bureau.

To address abuses like these, the Plenum announced the setting up of roving courts that are not under the control of local officials and the possibility of having courts and procuratorates that do not coincide with existing jurisdictions. There will be a written record of officials who inquire about ongoing cases. Prosecutors may now be allowed to file class-action suits in the public interest.

Tung said he was invited to the Plenum because he was known as a public-interest lawyer.

“I understand the common people, especially the problems faced by the weak and the underprivileged. The centre wanted to hear the voice from the grass roots. I mentioned many problems, all of them based on objective fact. Wang Qishan [secretary-general of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection] affirmed my contribution.”

These reforms are positive and aim to curb the abuse of power by local and provincial party officials. But the proof of their effectiveness will be in their implementation and the reversal of the mentality and behavior of many decades.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.