Beijing opens annual meeting to discuss bolstering rule of law

The ruling party is under pressure to improve the court system, but critics doubt the meeting signals meaningful change.

BEIJING – The conundrum of bolstering rule of law in Communist Party-run China was on the agenda for the ruling party’s top leaders Monday as they opened a four-day conclave to guide policy for the coming year.

Rule of law is a tricky notion in China because the party operates above the law and has never shown eagerness to change that. However, the ruling party and the government it controls are under pressure to improve the court system to address a sense among citizens that they have no real recourse in conflicts, including with local officials they accuse of unfairly seizing property and other wrongdoing.

Party leaders have set “rule of law” as the theme for this year’s annual meeting of its Central Committee.

Some experts argue leaders are invoking the concept to improve China’s image at a time when the authorities are stepping up political persecution against dissidents, activists, rights lawyers, scholars and writers.

No formal decisions are expected until Thursday, when the Central Committee’s 205 members conclude the meeting. Political observers are watching for changes to place the party under the authority of the law, though many believe that won’t happen.

“Ultimately, people will look at one line – whether the party should be under the constitution or above the constitution,” said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think-tank .

Carl Minzner, a law professor and expert on China’s legal system at the Fordham Law School in New York, said there was “absolutely zero chance” that the party would impose meaningful legal checks on its own power.

Still, some legal scholars are expecting legal reforms that would bring some fairness to the local level, where unrest stemming from lack of justice has flared up into violence.

The plenary meeting is expected to give provincial courts supervisory powers over their county-level peers in the areas of funding and appointments, removing the lower courts from the influence of local authorities.

Other changes may include vetting of judges to ensure they are professionally qualified and making more verdicts available to the public to hold judges accountable for their rulings.

Xu Xin, a Beijing-based legal scholar, said the plenary session may also introduce measures to curb corruption by requiring newly appointed officials to disclose to the public their personal assets and by setting up an anti-corruption agency.

Xu said a constitutional committee could be set up to arbitrate on validity of laws and regulations, although others are skeptical that such a committee would be independent of the party’s influence.

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