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China announces legal reforms, but commitment is in doubt

China’s Communist Party on Thursday announced new legal policies that, among other things, would punish local officials found to be interfering with judicial cases.

On the surface, that step and others could prove significant in making the country’s legal system more independent from the party, and thus more legitimate in the eyes of China’s 1.3 billion people.

But China’s ruling party has a history of making pronouncements about “rule of law” that do not live up to expectations. Some of the language issued Thursday did not give much hope to those seeking legal reforms in the world’s most populous country.

“The leadership of the Party and socialist rule of law are one and the same,” was one pronouncement from the Fourth Plenum of the Communist Party of China, a gathering of more than 360 top party leaders who concluded a four-day meeting in Beijing Thursday.

Such plenums are not open proceedings. Party elites meet behind closed doors and then issue communiques through Xinhua, China’s state-controlled news agency. Thus, it is difficult to know if anything announced Thursday will result in real change for Chinese citizens trying to use the legal system to address grievances.

Sophie Richardson, China director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said that a meaningful plenum would result in a review of recent cases of dissidents who were arrested, and in some cases tortured, before being convicted.

“If they are serious, they would need to emancipate the judicial system from party control. I do not see that happening,” she said in an interview with McClatchy.

According to Xinhua, China will ensure the leadership of the Communist Party “in the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics.”

The National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee should play a better role “in supervising the constitution’s implementation, and a mechanism to examine the legitimacy of major decision-making should be set up for governments, with a lifelong liability accounting system for major decisions,” according to Xinhua.

As part of this, “A mechanism will be set up to record officials who interfere in judicial cases and name them publicly to hold them accountable,” according to Xinhua.

Some think Thursday’s new policies are aimed at shoring up power in the highest levels of the Communist Party, by reducing it at lower levels. But it is difficult to know, given that the Chinese government restricts the ability of the news media or scholars to ask questions about such decisions, much less attend the proceedings.

The party also announced expulsions of a People’s Liberation Army general, Yang Jinshan, as well as key allies of fallen former security chief Zhou Yongkang, all accused of corruption.

The latter were Li Dongsheng, former vice minister of public security; Jiang Jiemin, a top official in state-owned enterprises; Wang Yongchun, a former manager of China National Petroleum Corp.; and Li Chuncheng, a former party chief from Sichuan province.

All were close allies of Zhou, once one of the party’s most powerful leaders, controlling both the nation’s security apparatus and energy industries. Also expelled was Guangzhou party secretary Wan Qingliang, who does not have an obvious connection to Zhou.

It may take weeks, or months or years, for legal scholars to determine the significance of Thursday’s pronouncements.

“The question underlying the current reform effort is whether the mentality of local officials can be shaped to guide their adherence more closely to centrally promulgated laws and policies,” Stanley Lubman, a retired University of California, Berkeley, law professor wrote in a blog for The Wall Street Journal.

“What is needed is a more explicit commitment to strengthen the discipline required for the courts to enforce laws consistently and reasonably,” he wrote in a commentary prior to Thursday’s announcement.