THE secret trial of Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng would have
hardly passed muster under China's pending legal reforms.
The country's most famous democrat and dissident was convicted
last December of conspiring to subvert the government and sentenced
to 14 years in prison.
At his short trial, barred to foreign observers and attended by
only two family members, Mr. Wei's detailed appeal was dismissed in
10 minutes, evidence was twisted, and legal procedures were
ignored, according to a report released March 4 by Human Rights
Watch in China, a New York-based monitor group.
Details of the Wei trial have leaked out as China weighs
unprecedented criminal law reforms to overhaul its politically
tainted legal system and eliminate abuses that have suppressed Wei
and other Chinese dissidents.
During its two-week legislative session that began March 5, the
country's nominal parliament, the National People's Congress, is
debating measures to expand defendants' rights, curb illegal
detentions, and make judges more impartial. These would be the
first changes since criminal procedure law was established in 1979.
To date, China's judicial system has lacked the legal
protections of Western nations and has been targeted as unfair by
international human rights activists and other critics. The courts
have been a part of China's massive security machine, which is
manned largely by ill-trained judges recruited from the military.
Since market-style reforms began transforming the socialist
economy in the late 1970s, economic change has outpaced
modernization of the legal system. Leader Deng Xiaoping and his
allies have pushed to bolster rule of law to protect the fledgling
market system. But they have been opposed by the pervasive police
and security establishment, which ignores laws and does things at
its own discretion.
Still, Western observers say the new proposals indicate that
some change is under way. "A lot is actually happening, although
the political situation, if not tense, is very tight. There's a lid
on it," says one international legal expert. "Since the political
system isn't changing, it's remarkable how much the legal system
The new amendments, in the draft stage for two years, are part
of the legislature's recent assertiveness in its efforts to
restrain other government branches. China is also trying to
forestall the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from
imposing sanctions for rights violations.
The Chinese Communist leadership is also worried political
unrest could erupt as the era of the nonagenarian Mr. …