A favorite opera character for ordinary Chinese is the black-
faced Bao Gong (Justice Bao), an ancient, saintly arbiter so
incorruptible that he even punishes the emperor's son-in-law.
Few of today's Chinese judges, who are poorly paid and widely
perceived as inept or corrupt, command the same respect.
But as China undergoes a massive transition to a market economy -
something that may bring social unrest - Chinese leaders are moving
to reform the feudal and Soviet-era-style justice system in the
hope that this will provide an important "safety valve" for popular
grievances. It is a vast and difficult undertaking.
Experiments are under way in local and state courts with
relatively new rules, like the presumption of innocence for those
accused. Legal aid centers are being set up in every county. And
three weeks ago, a highly touted new mandate from the National
Party Congress ordered all judges to have legal training.
For years, China's judges have been drawn from a pool of retired
military officers with no legal background or students fresh from
law school who "do what they are told," according to one expert who
did not wish to be identified.
Chinese courts do not have an independent judiciary that can make
decisions separate from Communist Party influence. There are no
rules of evidence or US-style due-process laws - as Chinese-
American scholars recently held on spy charges here can attest.
Yet in official Beijing, "rule of law" is the fashionable reform
phrase. Using terms like "modernization," "professionalization," and
"international standards," Chinese officials are willing to
entertain changes in the legal arena, even at a time of political
stolidity and curbs on free expression. Unlike politics, judicial
reform is viewed as a "safe area" of social criticism, experts say.
When President Jiang Zemin met last week with a visiting US
delegation, Sen. Arlen Specter, (R) of Pennsylvania, complained
that the Chinese-American scholars were "arrested without proper
charge, without counsel, had no public trial, and with no basic
conditions of fairness."
"He [Mr. Jiang] told us that the Chinese judicial system left
much to be desired," Senator Specter said to reporters later. "And
he said words to the effect, 'Be patient, we are working on the
rule of law.' "
So far, the main change is a gradual regularization of commercial
law. Chinese leaders like economic reformer Premier Zhu Rongji
continue to assert publicly that a healthy market economy and
overseas investment depends on a fair adjudication of rights, and
reliable courts that can honor and enforce contracts made by
But the dimension of reform, at least discussed inside China,
goes further. In journals like China Legal Daily and among a small
but broadening group of scholars and senior judges, one can read
such revolutionary sentiments as calls for an independent
judiciary, or questioning of the ways in which police gather
evidence. Ideas like giving power to judges to compel witnesses to
appear, and to allow cross-examination of those witnesses, are
topics of lively debate.
Last year, for the first time, a lawyer was appointed chief
justice of the Chinese Supreme People's Court, China's highest
court. The same year, the court ordered all members of the legal
profession to receive legal training. Revelations at the People's
Congress in March that the new rule had not been enforced set off
fierce diatribes - resulting in last month's decision on legal
training for judges, lawyers, and prosecutors.
"The judiciary is under attack from the leadership and from the
Party Congress," says Robert Reinstein, dean of the Temple
University School of Law in Philadelphia, which conducts a joint
program with the Tsinghua School of Law in Beijing. "The leaders
understand the need for an educated judiciary. …