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China Daily Website

Local officials' grip on power loosened

Updated: 2013-11-27 01:21
By Jiang Xueqing, Zhao Xu and Wang Shanshan in Beijing ( China Daily)

"In the past, investigations into allegations of corruption were often impeded by local authorities. They were able to interfere because the discipline inspection commission had to work under the leadership of the local Party committee. However, after the reforms, the commission will be able to reject intervention by local Party committees and local government," said Ma Qingyu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance.

The central committee will also strive to improve judicial independence. The topic has dominated discussion of the legal reforms, because it has become a source of great public concern at a time when China's economic development has yet to be followed by commensurate progress in other spheres.

To ensure justice in the courtrooms, the Party will establish a judicial system that's independent from local politicians and their administrations. The move is highly ambitious, and is aimed at preventing intervention in judicial decisions by governments below the provincial level, said Yang Xiaojun, deputy dean of the Department of Law of Beijing's Chinese Academy of Governance.

Yang Weidong, a law professor at the academy, said the current system is incompatible with justice. "One of the fundamental problems is the encroachment of the seemingly all-encompassing administrative powers in the country's judicial system. It's not possible to provide judicial independence, or justice for that matter, without severing the numerous ties between the judiciary and the administration. Judging from the evidence available, though, the leadership has started to tackle this enormous challenge with laudable pragmatism."

He was referring in part to a policy paper released at the end of the recent plenum. Thanks to the one taken in 1978, which set the tone for China's reform and opening-up, the "third plenary sessions" have been widely regarded as the launching pads for important policy changes that would have far-reaching and profound impact for the society as a whole.

This year's session called for a wide range of reforms in a large number of areas, and the policy paper on the legal system is being seen as a public indication of the government's determination to improve the judicial system by identifying specific failings and offering concrete remedies.

One of the failings being addressed is the undue influence local administrations have enjoyed in the courts as a result of the funding mechanism, according to Yang Weidong. Under the current system, lower-level local governments provide the funding for local courts, including payment of all legal staff, from their own coffers.

"One of the new measures is the transfer of the funding of below-provincial level courts to the provincial governments, keeping city and county governments at arm's length. Keeping in mind that whoever holds the purse strings has the most say, this move has huge implications," he said.

Flow of funds

The existing arrangement has given local governments considerable sway over court rulings, especially in the increasingly large number of administrative cases - for example, land condemnation cases - where local governments themselves were in the dock.

"Sometimes, administrative interference could even result in the court dropping certain cases," said Yang Weidong. "The situation is worse in the rural areas where the general public has a lower awareness of legal matters and local governments have often appeared more forceful and intrusive.

"The issue is compounded by the fact that in China all workers within the legal system are public servants and their administrative ranks are routinely lower than their counterparts in government offices," he said.

Now, by placing the financial responsibility — as well as the management of court personnel and the material assets, such as buildings and courtrooms — in the hands of provincial governments, the policy-makers hope to shut out a considerable amount of administrative influence at the grassroots level, where the reality of the judicial system is at its most frustrating. However, all this is built on an assumption.

"The public perception is this: When it comes to government, the higher the level, the less corrupt it will be — which is probably true in China," said Song Shiming, Yang Weidong's colleague at the Chinese Academy of Governance, who specializes in administrative reform. "Given the complexity of the issue, we need more than just one solution."

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