BEIJING – China’s Communist Party unveiled legal reforms on Thursday aimed at giving judges more independence and limiting local officials’ influence over courts, but it made no mention of the fate of its former domestic security chief who is under investigation for corruption.
The moves, made at a closed-door meeting of the ruling party’s elite, are pivotal to the workings of China’s market economy, the world’s second largest. They come at a time when slowing growth raises the prospect of more commercial disputes.
The measures also reflect worries by China’s leaders about rising social unrest in recent years. Anger over land grabs, corruption and pollution — issues often left unresolved by the courts — have resulted in violent clashes between police and residents, threatening social stability.
The meeting said it would improve the supervision of China’s Constitution under the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.
It said the Supreme Court would also establish circuit courts in a move to boost judicial independence.
The lack of detail in the announcements disappointed some China watchers, who wanted to see a bolder statement of intent.
The absence of news about the investigation into Zhou Yongkang, China’s former domestic security tsar, on corruption charges, was a surprise to some, although it may come soon.
Reports last week said Zhou was set to be expelled from the Communist Party at the plenum, possibly paving the way for his formal prosecution.
The case sent shock waves through the country’s political establishment, and served as a warning that President Xi Jinping was serious about his anti-graft fight and that no one was above the law, not even former Politburo Standing Committee members such as Zhou.
The party’s anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, will hold its fourth plenary session on Saturday, state news agency Xinhua said.
Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, expected the party to give details about Zhou’s case at that meeting, and said the party would not want his case to overshadow the main gathering, called the fourth plenum.
However, the plenum did formalize previously approved expulsions of several officials and executives linked to Zhou and investigated for graft.
They include Li Dongsheng, former vice minister of public security; Jiang Jiemin, the former head of the state asset regulator; and Wang Yongchun, former deputy head of state energy giant China National Petroleum Corporation.
Others expelled included Yang Jinshan, deputy commander of the Chengdu Military Area Command of the People’s Liberation Army; Li Chuncheng, a former party boss of the southwestern city of Chengdu; and Wan Qingliang, the former party boss of the southern city of Guangzhou.
The four-day meeting, which takes place most years and ended on Thursday, was made up of the roughly 370-member Central Committee. This year was the first time the party made “governing the country by law” the focus of a plenum.
“This is not a landmark decision, certainly it’s not a philosophical or ideological change,” said Cheng.
He pointed out that the plenum reaffirmed the party will lead constitutional reform, implying that it will be above the Constitution.
“(But) it’s not over. It’s the beginning of China’s fight for constitutionalism. The fact that they have talked about the Constitution itself is encouraging, it leaves a lot of room for further debate,” Cheng said.
Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator, said the announcements were “a major setback.”
“There’s nothing new there, it’s no different from 18 years ago,” he said. “My hair has turned white while waiting for rule of law to be implemented.”
Xinhua cited a statement from the plenary session as saying: “The people’s rights and interests must depend on the guarantees of the law. Legal authority depends on the people to uphold it.”
The plenum said it would assess cadres according to their “compliance with the laws,” although it gave few details. It promised to improve the legal profession by recruiting qualified lawyers, judges and prosecutors.
It also said it would “promote the rule of law in the army.” Xi has made weeding out corruption in the military a top goal.
The announcements were emblematic of Xi’s agenda.
Since he took office in March 2013, 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 Chinese people.
He has abolished the system of forced labor camps and called for judicial independence under the party. But at the same time, his administration has detained or jailed dozens of dissidents in what some activists say is the worst suppression of human rights in years.
The party has stressed that it will remain in overall control of the judiciary. For sensitive cases, such as high-level corruption or for prominent dissidents, the party will remain firmly in charge.
Despite the move to implement legal reforms, few analysts expect significant political change any time soon. In April, Xi warned that copying foreign political models could be catastrophic for China.
It is uncertain how much of an impact the plenum’s new policies will have. China’s laws are often not enforced and can be abused by the police.