Understanding the Fourth Plenum: No rule of law without independent trials

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Legal experts say that an independent trial system depends on the strength of the CCP’s efforts to enforce it.

Renmin University’s He Jiahong’s view is that “trials should be at the centre of judicial reform.” Criminal lawsuits consist of investigation, prosecution and trial but because China’s criminal lawsuits have investigation at their core, trials “are becoming meaningless.” Many cases are not decided by judges, but by political leaders. Without political intervention good judges can demonstrate their skill but ideological and administrative reform needs to come first

He Haibo of Tsinghua University told us of the difficulties filing cases. In Beijing only one third of lawsuits make it to court and even if judgement is made, the success rate for plaintiffs is extremely low (less than 10%). In He Haibo’s opinion, the most important factor in this is that trials are not independent. Judges are knowledgeable and strive for justice but have become institutionalized. Many cases are not directly interfered in by political leaders but judges practice self-censorship for fear of causing trouble.

Tsinghua’s Zhang Weiping feels that the proposed judicial reform neglects civil law. Nowhere in the text are civil cases mentioned specifically, despite their applicability to the proposed reforms. For Zhang, it is unclear what the report’s plan to separate trials and implementation actually means. But he supports the report’s concern with creating a credible judicial system with independent trials.

These three legal experts are cautiously optimistic, He Jiahong saying that “even if the direction of reform is clear cut, the most important thing is how, and with what strength, the Party carries it out. A rule of law society cannot be built overnight.”