- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A top Chinese judicial official has told reporters his country is making significant progress toward a more just judicial system.

Justice Wan Exiang, vice president of the Supreme People’s Court of China, told reporters Monday in Washington that China is trying to take “something from the Western system that will be useful with China’s judicial reform.”

China began its first round of judicial reform in 1999, initiating a five-year plan to revamp the court system. Since then, Justice Wan said, Chinese courts have implemented elements of cross-examination, juries and the role of precedents.

“Before that,” Justice Wan said, “we did not have any law students, so most of the judges were retired army men,” resulting in inconsistent rulings and sentences.

“Even the general people could not tell the difference between prosecutors, policemen and judges, who were usually in the same family,” Justice Wan said.

The first goal under the current plan, Justice Wan said, is to “ensure the judicial neutrality of the court.”

Jeremie Waterman, a China specialist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agreed that China is making welcome progress toward developing a society based on law. But, he said, “there is a need for still greater transparency in judicial processes and outcomes. Training will help, but further systemic reforms are required.”

American firms conducting business in China still are plagued by government interference in court decisions, Mr. Waterman said, particularly when a decision may harm a domestic commercial interest.

Noting China’s recent passage of an anti-monopoly law, he emphasized that many foreign firms are concerned about the ability of China’s system to adjudicate complex antitrust cases “as well as the impartiality of future enforcement decisions.”

“The Communist Party still continues to sit on top of the court system,” he said.

Justice Wan said that before the reforms began, “a Chinese court decision was always a collective one.” Now, China is trying to introduce the practice of “one single judge making a decision.”

Mr. Waterman remains skeptical about the neutrality of the judges. He said although business relations have improved between the two countries, a “question of impartiality still remains.”

Mr. Waterman said he believed the process of making Chinese courts more transparent could take decades, given the ruling party’s clear intention to retain control of the court system.

Justice Wan also said that the use of the death penalty has decreased and that the number of executions “will be going down, quickly or slowly, until [the] final destination is abolishment. … We have a long way to go, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Suzanne Wright, a China specialist for Amnesty International U.S.A., said China seems to be making “a very sincere effort to improve the legislative process insofar as the death penalty goes. [But] it is very difficult for anyone, particularly outside of the country, to know how successful it is.”

She said while “all of these reforms are viewed in a positive light by Amnesty International, they do not always seem to be followed at lower levels.”

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