In his annual work report for high-level political meetings in Beijing, China’s top judge listed a crackdown on human rights lawyers as one of the country’s biggest achievements over the past year.
Rights activists say that could signal the crackdown on lawyers is still far from over.
They also cast doubts over his vision towards the nation’s future pursuit of judicial reforms and court independence.
Addressing the National People’s Congress (NPC) on Sunday, Zhou Qiang, president and Chief Justice of China’s Supreme Court, opened his annual work report by firstly pledging loyalty to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party’s rule.
State subversion crimes
He then touted the country’s first achievement by courts of all levels in safeguarding national security and social stability, saying that harsh punishments had been meted out against the likes of those including Zhou Shifeng, who subverted state power.
Zhou Shifeng was director of Beijing’s Fengrui law firm, which was at the center of the government’s crackdown against more than 300 human rights defenders since July 2015 after having taken on sensitive cases for clients that challenged the authorities.
FILE - A delivery cart and cyclist ride past a building housing the Fengrui law firm in Beijing.
The crackdown on lawyers for doing largely what is seen as their job has sparked calls for their release from rights groups in the United States, European Union and legal groups overseas.
Lawyer Zhou was given a seven-year sentence in August of last year — a conviction based largely on confessions during his 13-month detention and reached without examination of evidence or a defense against his subversion charges.
Many observers have described the trials against the lawyer and the other defendants as “sham trials, which is mostly a political charade.”
With the lawyer’s case now bluntly labeled as an achievement in the eyes of the nation’s top judge, many rights activists say it shows the true nature of China’s authoritarian rule. It also sheds some light on the government’s continued crackdown of lawyers.
An alarming indication
“The rhetoric in which they are saying that the crackdown of [human rights] activists is an achievement, I think it’s an alarming indication that this is going to continue to be a major part of the Chinese government policies in the near future,” said Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
Expressing similar worries, Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group also said in a press release that China’s national security is so vaguely-defined that it is often used as a tool to suppress dissents and deprive them of their legal rights.
The group also called the top judge’s vision of enhancing oversight on lawsuit procedures and safeguarding the legal rights of defendants “fat lies” because the government has yet to admit its law-violating behavior in its legal actions against rights lawyers.
In his lengthy report, top judge Zhou laid down his vision to push forward the nation’s judicial reforms by establishing trial-based criminal procedures, accepting supervision from the NPC and the general public, and facilitating trial by jury to democratize the courts, to name a few. He added that the country’s 22,000 jury members had taken part in more than 3 million trials, 77 percent of first-trail cases in the past year.
But Wang found the top judge’s pledges simply “propaganda and an illusion,” which she said gives hope to ordinary people as the government is aware that there is a hunger for justice in China from those who are either victims of injustice or perceive the courts as highly corrupt.
“This tweaking of part of the [judicial] system is unlikely to produce fundamental changes if the courts are not independent,” she said.
Wang added that Chinese authorities have long made it clear that the rule of law is like a knife held firmly in the hand of the Communist party. Hence, any future judicial or rule of law reforms are meant to be used as a weapon against dissidents who try to turn it into a mechanism to protect individual rights.
In other words, if the country’s judicial system isn’t free from political control, fundamental changes to its judicial system won’t be possible, two Chinese rights lawyers said on condition of anonymity.
Heavy political control
VOA spoke with two lawyers about the speech who were among those who signed an open letter in January urging Zhou to quit his position after he had asked courts at all levels to oppose the influence of “western constitutional democracy,” separation of powers” and “judicial independence.”
Although both expressed indifference about Zhou’s report, one argued that his pledge of loyalty to the government deviates from his role as an independent judge.
Another lawyer said the jury system, which has been enacted for a few years, will never trigger any bottom-up democracy and freedom as many jury members have proved themselves nothing but “flower vases” — or pawns of the court.
Although Zhou highlighted in his report that the court had acquitted more than 1,000 people in the past year, China’s conviction rate remains high after more than 1.2 million people out of 1.1 million cases were found guilty of their criminal charges.
Meanwhile, two legal scholars contacted by VOA refused to comment, citing the sensitivity of Zhou’s work report. One said that he would like to speak, but didn't want to have to lie about the situation.
Online comments in response to the speech were divided.
On Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging platform, netizens who responded to news reports on the NPC’s live-steaming site gave mostly favorable comments to the top judge’s annual work such as “thumbs-up to the supreme court’s work” or “the court is doing a better job year after year.”
However, those who responded to news reports on the Oriental Outlook weekly’s website gave extremely negative comments such as calling Zhou “a disgrace in China’s judicial system” while another user blamed Zhou for bringing calamity to the country and the people because of his refusal to fight for judicial independence.