Communist Party leaders, seeking to address widespread dissatisfaction with China’s politicized and corrupt judiciary, endorsed a raft of legal changes on Thursday to foster a more predictable legal system while keeping the courts under the firm control of the party.
The proposals, promoted by the state news media as a landmark in “governing the country according to law,” emerged from a secretive, four-day party Central Committee meeting that ended Thursday.
“Fairness is the lifeline of rule of law,” the committee said, according to a summary of the proceedings published by the official Xinhua news agency. “Judicial injustice is fatally destructive of social fairness.”
Although the communiqué was short on specifics, the party’s embrace of a more impartial, rules-based approach to settling legal disputes and prosecuting criminals could have potentially sweeping consequences, which supporters said would bring more order to China’s legal system and which critics said were unlikely to address the worst abuses.
Experts said that, at their best, the proposed changes could temper some of the injustices that have prompted dispossessed farmers, unpaid factory workers and shortchanged investors to take to the streets.
But they warned that the changes would do little to curtail the power of the party, which is increasingly intolerant of challenges to its authority, and were unlikely to strip courts of political influence and meddling by local officials.
In particular, phrases in the communiqué like “people’s rights” and “rule of law” could be misconstrued, analysts say, because the party’s definitions differ vastly from Western ideals of an independent judiciary and inviolable rights.
Indeed, the statement left little doubt that the Communist Party would retain ultimate control over the legal system.
“Socialist rule of law must uphold the party’s leadership, and party leadership must rely on socialist rule of law,” it said. “Only with government according to the law, and implementation of rule of law under the party’s leadership can the people truly be masters of their own home.”
But in seeking to reshape the nation’s court system — by improving training and pay for judges and taking court budgets and appointments out of the hands of local officials — President Xi Jinping is trying to prevent the kind of interference in court cases that has angered ordinary Chinese and intensified mistrust in the Communist Party.
The proposals that have been discussed would also transfer the purse strings for judicial operations to provincial governments, depriving the local authorities of their influence when it comes to, say, courtroom repairs or staff salaries, and they would give judges the ability to rule on cases without approval from a higher-ranking judge. The power to make judicial appointments may also be removed from the local authorities.
“This is something that has to be done if the party wants to maintain legitimacy, because legitimacy is not just made by abstract concepts and buzzwords,” said Flora Sapio, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies China’s legal system. “You have to deliver something to the people.”
But she and other legal experts noted that Mr. Xi had no interest in creating a judiciary that could rule against the party’s policies and interests, particularly in cases that are politically delicate or that could lead to social unrest.
Hence the government’s talk of “rule of law” is “like a rooster dreaming that he can lay eggs,” Teng Biao, a prominent rights lawyer, wrote this week in Oriental Daily News, a Hong Kong website.
“The basic political system is incompatible with rule of law,” he said in an interview from Cambridge, Mass., where he is a visiting scholar at Harvard University. “They mainly want to use the law to control society and control the public.”
Much like his highly popular campaign against official corruption, Mr. Xi’s effort to overhaul the legal system seeks to tame an unwieldy and sometimes rapacious bureaucracy that has turned China’s judiciary into a trough for bribery and influence peddling.
The proposals outlined on Thursday are aimed at preventing the kind of Kafkaesque nightmare that befell Zhai Zhiping, a businessman in the northeast Chinese province of Heilongjiang, and his wife, Wang Bin, who spent more than three years in jail on fraud charges before the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
The couple were involved in a relatively small coal deal that went sour. When they went to court to sue a well-connected business partner for the $163,000 they said he owed them, they were ambushed by plainclothes police officers, dragged to another county and put on trial there on fraud charges.
They were tried and found guilty four times, and each time the verdict was reversed on appeal. After one trial, when they were sentenced to eight and a half years in prison, the judge apologized, saying his hands were tied by a powerful official whose relative had been involved in the deal.
“They have no respect for the law,” said Mr. Zhai, who, with his wife, was finally released in May. “Their only goal is money, and they use power entrusted by the state to get money.”
Since Mr. Xi became party leader in 2012, the Chinese government has taken steps to address some of the system’s more glaring deficiencies. The judicial authorities have overturned a string of wrongful convictions of people sentenced to death or long prison terms. And while China still executes more people than all other countries combined, the use of capital punishment declined 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights group based in San Francisco.
Last year, the government abolished re-education through labor, a decades-old system of imprisonment without trial, although it has preserved other channels for extrajudicial detention. In June, party leaders also endorsed a set of experimental initiatives intended to make China’s roughly 3,500 courts and 20,000 judges more professional and consistent in applying the law.
Chinese judges often have no practical legal experience before joining the courts in their 20s, although lawyers say the system has greatly improved since the days when many cases were adjudicated by former police officers or decommissioned military officers without legal training.
Still, China’s judges have been struggling with expanding workloads and annual salaries that start at $8,000. In 2013, Chinese courts accepted 14.2 million cases, including appeals, retrials and enforcement hearings, an increase of 7.4 percent over the previous year, according to the Supreme People’s Court. Some judges handle 700 or 800 cases a year while juggling mounds of paperwork, He Fan, a judicial official, wrote last year in the court’s newspaper.
With salaries and appointments controlled by the local authorities, judges often find themselves doing the bidding of influential officials or the Communist Party legal committees that are installed in every courthouse. He Haibo, a law professor at Tsinghua University, said many Chinese judges were demoralized by their inability to rule on cases without interference.
“They are deeply frustrated, and it can be very humiliating when a judge doesn’t agree with a verdict but, under various pressures, has to sign his or her name to it,” he said. “Chinese judges can’t afford to claim authority, sometimes not even dignity.”
Although more details about the legal changes are not expected until next week, in their broad strokes, they seek to address some of those indignities. Along with shifting court budgets to provincial authorities, a proposal to extend judicial jurisdictions beyond a single locality could dilute the influence of local officials.
Even so, judges are still likely to bend rulings toward “local leaders and powerful local interests,” said Keith J. Hand, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.
Another big question mark is how Mr. Xi’s plans will play in the provinces, which have a history of resisting edicts from the central government. With much of China’s bureaucracy reeling amid an anticorruption drive that has curtailed opportunities for extracurricular income, some local officials may not be in a mood to cooperate.
Mr. Zhai, the businessman from northeast China who was wrongly convicted, said he doubted that the central government’s newfound zeal for the rule of law would trickle down to faraway jurisdictions like Heilongjiang.
“This place is too far away from Beijing, too remote and too far behind,” he said. “They treat people here like we’re nothing.”