The party squeezes China's judiciary
By Willy Lam

Chinese President Hu Jintao's administration has boosted the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) control over the judiciary, a move designed to enhance Beijing's ability to maintain stability and to crack down on dissent.

More powers have been given to the party's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC), which has control over the police, the prosecutor's offices and the courts. Hu, also party general secretary, has given new orders that zhengfa (political and legal) departments - which handle law enforcement and judicial matters - must observe the so-called "three top priorities", meaning the latter must give "utmost priority to the party's enterprise, the people's interests, and the constitution and the law".

That the party's goals and concerns override everything else was made clear in a national meeting of judicial and security officials called late last month by the CPLAC, which is headed by conservative Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Zhou Yongkang. A former minister of public security, Zhou told the nation's senior judges, prosecutors, police officers and other zhengfa cadres to "perpetually uphold the political orientation of being loyal to the party, loyal to the country and the people, and loyalty to the law".

Speaking for the nation's 180,000 judges, the newly promoted president of the Supreme People's Court (SPC) Wang Shengjun indicated at the same conference that "only by upholding the 'three priorities' from beginning to end can the work of the people's courts go along the correct political path".

In what amounts to a drastic politicization of the judiciary, court officials were told to rally behind the leadership of the "party central authorities with comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary". "We must unify our consciousness, thoughts and action regarding what kind of flag the courts will hoist and what kind of road they will take ... in order to ensure the correct political direction of the people's courts," Wang added.

While senior zhengfa cadres have laid down relatively few specific targets for their colleagues, it seems clear that the police and judicial apparatus have been asked to combat challenges to the socialist order in the run-up to the all-important Summer Olympic Games next month. Top judge Wang said the goal of the courts is to "increase harmonious elements [in society], and to curtail disharmonious elements to the maximum degree".

In the official media, the phrase "disharmonious elements" is frequently used shorthand for criminals, ethnic separatists, dissidents and foreign spies. Wang exhorted the nation's judges and other judicial cadres that "a major criterion for assessing and testing the juridical and implementation functions of the people's courts" would be whether they could "promote society's harmony".

Also speaking at the national meeting, Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu urged zhengfa units to "comprehensively carry out demands made by the central party authorities about improving security in relation to the Olympics". "We must guarantee the safe and smooth running of the Beijing Olympics," he added.

It is noteworthy that the Hu-led Politburo has over the past year taken a much more conservative line on the party's leadership over judicial and law-enforcement organs. In the first year after he became party chief in November 2002, Hu repeatedly stressed that party and government departments must fully respect the Chinese Constitution as well as the goal of "running the country according to law".

Since early 2008, however, Hu's tactic has shifted to using the legal and judicial apparatus as a tool for bolstering CCP authority and sociopolitical stability. Official Chinese media recently quoted Hu as saying that the foremost task of "political and legal" organs - which include police, prosecutor's offices and courts - should be to "steadfastly safeguard the CCP's ruling party status, as well as national security and the people's interests".

At the same time, security, legal and judicial officials have been warned against being misled by "Western" concepts about democracy, political freedom or the independence of the judiciary. The official Legal Daily reported last month that different groups of police and court officials had watched a film entitled "Lessons from the 'color revolutions'." The documentary, put together by the CPLAC and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), was about political changes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan from 2003 to 2005, when "pro-West" opposition forces managed to seize power after defeating conservative, autocratic ruling parties.

The daily reported that after watching the film, "the political consciousness [of the audience] was enhanced" and that they were more committed than ever to "combating various subversive activities of enemy forces both in and outside China and to resolutely uphold the socialist order".

In interviews with the domestic media, officials in zhengfa departments have vowed to fulfill their prescribed role as the "tools of democratic proletarian dictatorship". Zhang Wenxian, the president of the Higher People's Court in Jilin province, has revived Cultural Revolution-era language to play up the fact that "the people's courts are state judicial organs under the leadership of the CCP".

"The courts must uphold the party's leadership so as to keep up their [correct] political orientation," he added. "They must take as their holy task the sustenance of the party's ruling foundation and the consolidation of the CCP's ruling-party status."

Zhang particularly drew attention to sociopolitical stability being jeopardized due to the "infiltration and disruption activities by Western countries", for example, by "attacking our socialist judicial system through exaggerating and distorting certain judicial cases".

In a similar vein, the head of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee of Guangdong province Liu Yupu called on law enforcement and judicial officials in his province to "unify their thoughts and arm their brains" with Hu's instructions concerning how police and court officers can contribute to national security. Liu, who doubles as the vice party secretary of Guangdong, noted that "the state security situation in Guangdong is tough because being close to Hong Kong and Macau, the province is at the frontline of the struggle against enemies".

Since the marathon personnel changes that took place in the run-up to and immediately after the 17th CCP Congress last October, cadres at both the CPLAC and its regional offshoots have been visibly given more clout. The same is true for senior officials in the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). SPC president Wang, who got his promotion at the National People's Congress (NPC) last March, is a former CPLAC secretary general.

Since administrative streamlining that took place last year, the number of vice-party secretaries of most provinces has been reduced to two. As in the case of super-rich Guangdong, one of the two vice party bosses of several provinces is the cadre in charge of police, legal and judicial work. Meanwhile, a number of high-level MPS cadres have been transferred to senior slots in the provinces. For example, Assistant Minister of Public Security Sun Yongbo was late last month promoted vice-governor of Heilongjiang province. The Hong Kong daily Wen Wei Po quoted informed sources in Beijing as saying that the recent spate of promotions received by senior police officers "reflects the importance that central and regional authorities are attaching to security work".

Analysts familiar with the tortuous course of Chinese legal and judicial evolution, however, are alarmed by the fact that CCP authorities seem to be putting political loyalty before professional competence in picking top officials in the zhengfa apparatus. The best example is SPC honcho Wang, who is the equivalent of China's chief justice. Before being promoted to the CPLAC in 1993, Wang was police chief in Anhui province for several years.

Yet Wang never went to law school, nor does he have any experience as a lawyer, judge or prosecutor. His predecessor Xiao Yang, by comparison, is a legal scholar and a veteran government prosecutor at both the provincial and central level. Moreover, most of the dozen-odd SPC vice-presidents are respected law professionals, including several who used to be professors in well-known law schools. Wang's appointment as chief judge seems to reflect the Hu leadership's anxiety about putting the courts under the control of a trusted party functionary.

The apparent politicization of the courts is taking place even as the SPC is trying to improve the quality and reputation of the country's notoriously corrupt judges. Last month, SPC vice president Shen Deyong announced a countrywide "tracking system" whereby the nation's highest court would systematically track disputed court cases - and penalize regional judges who have a record of misjudgments.

"We will streamline principles for judges' discretionary powers and try to unify standards so as to avoid the public's doubts of judicial justice because of very different judgments on similar cases," Shen said. Nonetheless, even party and government departments seem to have doubts about the reliability and professionalism of judges. For example, it has become a norm for senior cadres accused of corrupt practices to be put on trial in a province that is outside the suspect's jurisdiction. The fact that judges have been called on by the top CCP leadership to put political loyalty before other considerations, however, could militate against efforts to buttress their ethical and professional standards.

The increasingly powerful public-security establishment has also been accused of being a hotbed of factionalism: an exceptionally large number of senior police officers were either born in Heilongjiang province or have spent a good part of their career there. Members of this Heilongjiang Faction within the MPS have included Vice Ministers Yang Huanning, Zhang Xinfeng and Meng Hongwei and the just-retired former vice minister Bai Jingfu.

The lack of "geographical diversity" within the leadership of such a major ministry goes against the well known Deng Xiaoping dictum on CCP personnel arrangements that senior officials in party and government units should hail from "the five lakes and four seas". In Hu's eagerness to secure the unstinting support of security and judicial officials for augmenting CCP authority and clamping down on dissent however, Hu seems willing to give loyalists in the zhengfa system additional perks - and ignore their indiscretion to bolster party unity.

Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He has worked in senior editorial positions in international media including Asiaweek newsmagazine, the South China Morning Post and the Asia-Pacific Headquarters of CNN. He is the author of five books on China, including the recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

(Copyright 2008 The Jamestown Foundation.)