China will launch pilot programs to overhaul its judicial system and curb abuses of power by local governments without sacrificing the ruling Communist Party's control of the courts, state media reported on Monday.
Legal reforms are a key platform for President Xi Jinping's government to restore popular faith in the Party and judicial system amid simmering public discontent over miscarriages of justice often caused by officials' abuse of power.
China must “improve the requirements for appointing justices and prosecutors while upholding the principles of leading party officials and respecting the rule of justice,” an unnamed official in the top office in charge of judicial reforms told the official Xinhua news agency.
It did not say when the pilot programs would be launched.
To limit interference by local governments, provincial governments will pick judges and prosecutors and fix the budgets of local courts, Xinhua reported. The system currently gives local governments greater sway in appointments.
Panels of legal specialists at the provincial level will nominate judges and prosecutors, but the Party must still approve their appointments.
The reforms must “uphold the Party's leadership,” the official said, signaling a willingness by the central leadership to improve its courts as long as the Party's overall control is not threatened.
Critics have described the leadership's call for greater independence for courts as a hollow gesture, because judges ultimately answer to the Party.
The pilot programs will run in six places, including Shanghai, the financial capital, the southern industrial powerhouse of Guangdong, and western Qinghai province.
The reforms give judges more power and accountability, holding them responsible for miscarriages of justice during their terms, even after they have retired. Currently, judges must often get their superiors' approval for verdicts.
A separate management system for judges and prosecutors will also be set up, apart from the civil service hierarchy, to keep legal professionals rather than bureaucrats at the frontline of legal work, Xinhua said.
Investigations will be recorded and court documents uploaded to the Internet to improve transparency and prevent abuse of power by judicial officers, the official said.
In internal meetings, the Party has announced a move to curb the power of its Political and Legal Committee, a secretive body overseeing the security services, but it would still have final say over politically sensitive cases and would use the courts to convict citizens who challenged its authority.