China hails progress in legal reform at Communist Party congress

Human rights activists say rule of law has deteriorated during Xi Jinping era

Chinese president Xi Jinping delivering a speech at the Communist Party congress in Beijing on Wednesday. China’s legal system has become worse during the five years of Mr Xi’s ’s rule, say rights activists. Photograph:  Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Chinese president Xi Jinping delivering a speech at the Communist Party congress in Beijing on Wednesday. China’s legal system has become worse during the five years of Mr Xi’s ’s rule, say rights activists. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

 

China has made great progress in constructing its judicial system, delegates were told at the Communist Party congress in Beijing, and legal experts pledged further reform and improvements.

However, human rights activists said that, while advances have been made in some areas, China’s legal system has become worse during the five years of President Xi Jinping’s rule.

Legal reform and the introduction of rule of law in China has been a major topic at the twice-a-decade congress, which is set to further strengthen Mr Xi’s grip on power.

“Building legal structures, I believe, will be further accelerated and pushed forward after the congress,” said Zhang Sujun, vice-president of the China Law Society and a deputy justice minister.

Mr Xi made frequent references to rule of law during his 3½-hour work report to open the gathering on Wednesday, during which he heralded a “new era” of Chinese power.

“Advancing law-based governance in all fields is a profound revolution in China’s governance,” he said.

One of the defining campaigns of his first five years in power has been cracking down on corruption by government officials

Typically, nearly all defendants are found guilty in China and it is very rare that anyone who appears in court is found innocent.

China has introduced a series of legal reforms during Mr Xi’s time in power, including the abolition of forced confessions and the use of torture to gather evidence.

Increased persecution

However, the Xi era has also seen increased persecution of human rights lawyers and civil society, and ever-tighter control of the media and the internet.

In July 2015, scores of lawyers who worked with rights activists were detained during the “709 crackdown” and held for months in some cases.

Beijing judge Song Yushui said more than 3,800 criminal defendants were found innocent because of insufficient evidence or unclear facts, proof of China’s determination to protect human rights.

“It is a big demand of people and also a key to fulfil the rule of law,” she said.

William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said this figure was hardly something to boast about given that millions were found guilty and there was nearly a 100 per cent conviction rate.

“Certainly there are areas of progress in the legal system, but overall, most of the fundamental and longstanding problems in China’s legal system only became worse over the last five years,” Mr Nee told The Irish Times.

“Most importantly, the Communist Party has ensured that it rides completely above the law, and can insert itself into any specific cases to rig the outcomes in whatever way it desires,” he said.

China has also introduced a raft of new security laws that are a threat to human rights, said Mr Nee, including a national security law, rules restricting how foreign NGOs operate in China and other legislation for cybersecurity and countering terrorism.

“In this sense, ‘law’ became a convenient tool to violate human rights, rather than a shield to protect human rights,” said Mr Nee.