China unveils legal reform plans, but says party to remain in control

[BEIJING] China's Communist Party pledged on Tuesday to speed up legislation to fight corruption and make it tougher for officials to exert control over the judiciary, even as it stressed full control over the courts.

The decision, released by the official Xinhua news agency, was reached at a four-day party meeting, or plenum, last week.

The party said it would "prevent extorting confessions by torture" and prevent miscarriages of justice with a "timely correction mechanism" following a series of corruption investigations involving torture that have outraged the public.

The plan to prevent forced confessions, which had been flagged last year, is aimed at preventing abuses under the party's anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Some legal cases have illustrated the brutality of a secretive detention system for party members, known as "shuanggui", and the drive to get confessions as President Xi Jinping presses on with an aggressive anti-corruption campaign.

Lawyers had raised questions about the legality of the process, calling it unconstitutional.

The party said it would "uphold" the Political and Legal Committee, a secretive body overseeing the security services that many lawyers have blamed for interference in legal cases.

"They are not ready to move forward with abolishing the institution and I think that will be a problem in future," said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.

Legal scholars had hoped the party would reform the Committee, which they say would be a repudiation of former domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, who is under investigation for corruption and has been blamed for much of the abuse of the rule of law.

The party promised the separation of local powers from the courts through the establishment of courts spanning administrative regions but it stressed the judiciary would remain in its grip.

Mr Xi said in a speech to the party that its leadership was "the most fundamental guarantee of socialist rule of law".

The moves, made after last week's closed-door meeting of the party's elite, are pivotal to the workings of China's market economy, the world's second largest. They come as slowing growth raises the prospect of more commercial disputes.

The measures also reflect leaders' worries about rising social unrest. Anger over land grabs, corruption and pollution - issues often left unresolved by the courts - have resulted in violence between police and residents in recent years, threatening social stability.

"The judicial system is the last defence for social justice," Mr Xi was quoted as saying. "If it fails, the people will widely question (the ability to realise) social justice and stability will hardly be maintained." The party would accelerate national anti-graft legislation and improve the system of punishing and preventing corruption.

The party also said it would promote pilot programmes aimed at judicial independence and the separation of powers.

The party also said officials had to pledge allegiance to the constitution before taking office. "We keep on talking now about ruling the country in accordance with the constitution, but I think we should not overdo this propaganda," said Zhan Zhongle, a law professor at Peking University.

"These things are just formalities, the more important bit is the implementation. You know, China is a country that shouts slogans louder than any other country." Legal scholars are sceptical about significant change under one-party rule. For sensitive cases, such as high-level corruption or for prominent dissidents, the party will remain in charge.

Still, the announcements were emblematic of Mr Xi's agenda.

Since he took office in March 2013, Mr Xi, who has a doctorate in law, has vowed to put "power within the cage of regulations" and waged a war against corruption, winning over many ordinary people. This year was the first time the party made "governing the country by law" the focus of the plenum.

He has abolished a system of labour camps and called for judicial independence under the party. But at the same time, his administration has detained dozens of dissidents in what some activists say is the worst suppression of human rights in years.

Despite the legal reforms, Mr Xi has shown no interest in political change.

It is uncertain how much of an impact the plenum's policies will have. Laws are often not enforced and can be abused by the police. Full details of the reforms will likely be unveiled in coming months.


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