The judicial system: Suppress and support

Beijing (The Economist)- A human rights lawyer and three activists have been found guilty of “subverting state power” in a series of trials in the northern city of Tianjin. With resonances of the show trials of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, they are the latest part of a crackdown on Western ideas and social and political activism that began in earnest after Xi Jinping became Communist Party chief in 2012.

The past year has been particularly intense for lawyers and activists, starting last July when 250 of them were detained by police. The four convicted between August 2nd and 5th were accused of being part of a foreign-backed, anti-party conspiracy and confessed their “crimes” in video footage.

Yet the crackdown on rights lawyers and political activists is not the whole story. It comes as incremental judicial reforms are taking place for less sensitive cases at a local level which mean that some citizens are making modest progress seeking redress through the courts. These two contradictory dynamics—old-style, top-down political pressure alongside some bottom-up legal empowerment—are part of the party’s carrot-and-stick approach to maintaining stability. While no one expects significant change at the top, the big question is how much impact the local level reforms can have.

The four men who stood trial last week included Zhou Shifeng, former director of a Beijing law firm famous for defending activists such as Ai Weiwei, an artist, and intellectuals such as Ilham Tohti, an economist who spoke up for the Uighur ethnic group. Mr Zhou was jailed for seven years.

His family members, and those of the other defendants, were not allowed to attend the trials. Police blocked foreign journalists from entering the courthouse and official media reports discredited the men ahead of their sentencing. International observers condemned the proceedings in Tianjin as a travesty of justice. On August 1st, Wang Yu, another prominent human-rights lawyer, was said to have been released from jail. In a televised confession she proclaimed that “foreign forces” were to blame for inciting her law firm to undermine the Chinese government. “I won’t be used by them anymore,” she said. Over a dozen lawyers and activists are still being held, according to Amnesty International. They could be tried at any time.

Stay out of politics

On less sensitive cases, however, popular anger has pushed the judicial system to try to be more accountable. China’s most senior legal figure, Zhou Qiang, appointed president of the Supreme People’s Court in 2013, is widely believed to want to use judicial reform to stop people taking their anger onto the streets—an increasingly widespread phenomenon. In the past, Chinese courts would arbitrarily reject sensitive cases. Many still do. But new rules brought in last year now oblige them to hear all cases that fulfil basic standards, even if they then throw them out. In the first month after the regulations came into effect, there was a 30% jump in the number of cases accepted.

In China’s first same-sex marriage case, a gay couple went to court in April in the southern city of Changsha to sue the local civil affairs bureau for the right to marry. The judge dismissed the couple’s case within minutes and they lost their final appeal two months later, but legal reformers saw the case as progress because it was at least heard in a courtroom.

In the past year, the number of cases accepted by courts relating to the rights of socially marginalised groups has surged, even though few have won. They include a lesbian student suing the education ministry for textbooks calling homosexuality a disorder; the country’s first transgender employment discrimination case; and dozens of food-safety and environmental-protection suits that challenged large companies. In a landmark victory in April, a court in the south-western province of Guizhou ruled that a local education bureau must pay a school teacher compensation after he lost his job for testing HIV-positive. China has no specific laws against employment discrimination and the case was reportedly the first of its kind.

Stanley Lubman, an American legal scholar, says the ability to sue government agencies is important and the increased pursuit of such cases reflects a greater legal consciousness among citizens. Two other things are contributing to the changes. One is progressive legislation, such as recent new laws to protect the environment and punish domestic violence; these have widened the space for litigation. A pilot reform launched last year even encouraged state prosecutors to pursue public-interest suits.

The other is social media. Sun Wenlin, a 27-year-old IT worker who is half of the gay couple in Changsha, is optimistic in spite of losing his case. “Homosexuality is taboo and we thought no one would care. But our case generated a lot of discussion on the internet. We had sympathetic coverage even in state-owned media,” he says. Mr Sun now gives workshops around the country to teach others how to file similar lawsuits, hoping to change the belief among cynical Chinese that the law is just a tool of oppression. “China is clearly changing, but slowly,” he says.

Yet the courts are still under the thumb of the Communist Party. Officials approve the hearing of many cases and sometimes determine the verdict and sentence, too. There is no way for plaintiffs to know whether a case will cause them trouble or not. Jerome Cohen of New York University says the focus of Mr Xi’s presidency is on expanding central control. The party defines sovereignty and national security broadly in order to keep control over sensitive issues, says Susan Finder, an expert on China’s legal system.

Long way to go

It will take a lot more effort to educate the broader public on their legal rights and to train enough legal officials. Judges, especially those in lower courts, are poorly paid and have little formal legal training. Many have been jailed for taking bribes. This generates deep resentment, and is the reason why thousands of petitioners journey to Beijing each year to complain to the central government rather than bother using the local courts.

Now many judges are leaving the profession, citing low pay and high pressure. The caseload of all levels of courts went up significantly following the recent reforms, while changes to judicial procedure in 2014 had already declared that judges should bear “lifetime responsibility for case quality”. A former judge in Beijing, now earning much more as a commercial lawyer, says that reforms have made things better for lawyers, who have more confidence in the system, but worse for judges, who find their ability to benefit from their position more limited.

Experts say reforms are trying hard to reduce corruption at local levels, not least to limit the damage it does to the party’s reputation nationally. But the possibility of any kind of institutional, independent checks and balances is still a long way off. On July 22nd a Beijing court gave no reason for rejecting a lawsuit filed by Yanhuang Chunqiu, an outspoken liberal journal, over the demotion of the journal’s chief editor and the firing of its publisher. It is a measure of how ossified the overall system remains that some of the small changes in local cases are greeted with such optimism.

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