China needs an independent judiciary

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — China has performed a miracle over the last quarter century, lifting hundreds of millions of people from dire poverty and turning the country into an economic powerhouse. In the process, Beijing has raised people’s expectations not only of a better life but of a fairer society.

Now, however, there are now many who feel that the government has let them down.

Sometimes, a tragedy causes the government to sit up and take notice. One such event was the beating to death last year in Guangzhou of a 27-year-old university graduate, Sun Zhigang, because he could not show his temporary residence card. The outcry that followed caused the State Council to rescind a regulation allowing police to detain people who failed to produce local residence permits.

However, the Sun Zhigang case was an exception. Most of the time, the central government seems to turn a blind eye to the outrages perpetrated by provincial and local authorities.

People with grievances across the country stream to Beijing to present petitions and demand justice. But such is the demand that the redress system is overwhelmed and unable to cope.

The ongoing saga of Chen Guangcheng, a 34-year-old blind man in Yinan county, near the city of Linyi in Shandong province, offers a perfect illustration of the problems involved.

Chen can be described as a “barefoot lawyer” since he has no law degree and is largely self-taught through getting his wife and older brother to read law books to him. He provided legal help to friends and neighbors, successfully arguing, for example, that disabled people who cannot work are not liable to pay agricultural tax.

His problems began when he took up the cudgels to help people victimized by family planning officials who flagrantly violated the law through forced abortions and compulsory sterilizations. If a pregnant woman went into hiding, the authorities would jail her relatives and neighbors and beat them until she turned herself in.

Officials in Beijing agreed that such behavior was a flagrant violation of Chinese law. However, so far they have not lifted a finger to help this blind man, who has been beaten up, detained and interrogated, and who now is under virtual house arrest and allowed no visitors. His computer has been seized and his telephone cut so that he cannot communicate with the outside world. Lawyers from Beijing who went to Linyi to offer their services were also beaten up.

So far, the central government seems unwilling to involve itself in the case, even though it has been highly publicized in the international press.

When criticized by the international community about such things as forced abortions, China routinely insists that they do not represent government policy and are against the law. But often such illegal behavior is a direct result of pressure from Beijing on local officials to enforce birth quotas. It is hypocritical, therefore, for the central government to pretend that such illegal acts are not officially sanctioned. Certainly, when the central government knows about such abuses and does nothing, it looks even worse. Laws are meaningless of they are not enforced.

Thanks to the Communist Party’s economic and other reforms, expectations are rising in China along with a much stronger sense of individual rights. One way to ease such pent-up pressures and to create a more harmonious society is to allow an independent judicial system to provide recourse. This is what happens in other societies.

A major problem that prevents courts from acting independently in China is that judges are paid by local governments and are often considered extensions of the bureaucracy. Then when people with grievances against local governments go to court and run into a blank wall, it simply increases their sense of frustration.

Things do not have to be this way. Beijing has known for years about the problems of the legal system and especially about local protectionism. The Supreme People’s Court has been talking at least since the mid-1990s of developing a nationwide judiciary whose members are paid not by local officials but out of the judiciary’s funds, allocated by the central government. Such a move would go a long way to making the judiciary more independent, and yet so far the Communist Party has not shown the political will to institute such a pressing reform.

Beijing needs to bite the bullet and make that happen. It should see the Chen Guangcheng case as an opportunity to build up a strong legal system and, in the process, show the international community that the Chinese government means what it says about building a society where rule of law holds sway.