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China’s Chief Justice Rejects an Independent Judiciary, and Reformers Wince

The speech was widely seen as a bow to the strict political climate that President Xi Jinping has established in China, as a major Communist Party conclave approaches this year. Though Mr. Xi won plaudits this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for his support of economic globalization, at home he has overseen a yearslong program to constrain civil society, promote adulation for Mao Zedong, stamp out support for an independent press and sharply limit speech on the internet.

“This statement is the most enormous ideological setback for decades of halting, uneven progress toward the creation of a professional, impartial judiciary,” Jerome A. Cohen, director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University, wrote of the chief justice’s speech in a blog post. “It has already provoked some of China’s most admirable legal scholars to speak out in defiance, and, despite their prominence, I fear not only for their academic freedom and careers but also for their personal safety.”

One Chinese scholar who spoke out was He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, whose own online post criticizing the remarks was removed from the internet. In the post, he said it was wrong to call judicial independence a Western concept, citing the example of Bao Zheng, a famous Chinese judge who lived about 1,000 years ago and was celebrated for his just decisions.

“This is truly a statement that wrecks the nation and harms the people,” Mr. He wrote. “It truly goes against history.”

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Mr. He said Mr. Xi’s comments at a Communist Party work conference two days before the chief justice’s speech had made it clear that he was demanding obedience from the judiciary.

“Xi said some very harsh things,” Mr. He said. “He demanded that political and legal work must safeguard the stability of the regime. So now heads of these judicial organizations must declare where they stand, to show that they support what Xi said.”

In his speech Saturday, Chief Justice Zhou also exhorted judges to “safeguard by law images of leaders and heroes, and to resolutely safeguard the party and the People’s Army’s glorious history.”

Mr. Cohen said that remark was consistent with Mr. Xi’s effort to whitewash the image of Mao, Communist China’s first leader. Since 2013, the Communist Party has spoken out against the notion of “historical nihilism,” which it takes to mean any denigration of the historical image of Mao and the party, including discussion of Mao’s disastrous economic policies in the late 1950s or his chaotic Cultural Revolution.

In recent weeks, the government has cracked down harshly on some officials who made negative remarks about Mao. In the northern province of Hebei, a deputy director of the Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television Bureau in the provincial capital was fired after making what were deemed “erroneous comments” on his social media account, which has since been deleted. Overseas Chinese websites reported that the comments were critical of Mao.

While his position is prestigious, Chief Justice Zhou is not a member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo. Before Mr. Xi’s ascension to power in 2012, the jurist was a rising star, serving as the top official in Hunan, Mao’s home province. He was frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for a top leadership position.

Now he is showing his fealty to Mr. Xi, Mr. Cohen, the director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, said in a telephone interview. He said the speech appeared to be a bid for political survival before the Communist Party Congress set for late this year, which will determine who serves directly under Mr. Xi for the next five years.

“People who know him find him a reasonable person who’s had a good legal education and who had been open before he became chief justice to improvements in the legal system,” Mr. Cohen said. “This must be pretty bitter gruel for him to swallow in order to try to bring the courts into a kind of militant observance of the highest party leadership.”

Source: NYT > World

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