Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Despite recent crackdowns on feminists and human rights activists, China´s judicial systems is slowly but surely moving into a more independent force in China´s bureaucracy, says Judge Jiang Huiling of the Supreme Court in an interview with journalist Ian Johnson for the New York Times. Courts get more autonomy, be it limited.

Ian Johnson:

Judge Jiang of the Supreme Court said he had been pushing for this separation of local government and courts for 20 years. Now, he said, the government has taken this step for the first time. “You can’t imagine how this feels for someone who has been working inside the system for this long,” he said.

Other measures are being tried as well. The government has set up two pilot projects to establish circuit courts, which allow judges from one province to hear cases from others, further reducing the risk of local influence. Dockets are also being made public for the first time, and 50 courts have been allowed to experiment with an “assessor” system that is similar to a jury.

Judge Jiang said these measures have the highest backing. The key government body that pushes reform in China, the shengaizu, has met 18 times over the past two years, and 13 of those meetings have been about judicial reform. The commission is led by President Xi Jinping, who has spoken of the need for a better legal system.

“President Xi asks for two things: the courts should be fairer and result in more public confidence,” Judge Jiang said. “If people think the courts are fair, their confidence will rise but if they feel it has nothing to do with them, then it’s not a success.”

But another of the initiatives — professionalizing judges — illustrates some of the deep-seated challenges facing reformers. China has about 196,000 judges, but many are simply law school graduates with the responsibilities of administrative assistants. Even those judges who hear cases rarely have to make decisions; instead, the cases are sent to senior judges or Communist Party committees to decide. Now, the number of judges is to be winnowed down. and while their pay and autonomy is being increased, their decisions will be subject to greater review.

That has contributed to a massive outflow of judges. In the municipality of Beijing, for example, 500 judges have quit in recent years. Pay is a key issue. Salaries start at less than $1,000 a month, which judges say is far too low if they are now expected to actually adjudicate cases and be held responsible for their decisions.

More in the New York Times.

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