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China’s courts take a step back

The National People’s Congress has passed the amendments to China’s Criminal Procedural Law that make first instance courts more secretive than ever. The changes contradict a statement by Supreme People’s Court President Wang Shengjun for more reforms to open up China’s legal system.

Date: 15 March 2012

Keywords (click to search): NPC PRC Criminal Procedural Law Court Proceedings Supreme People's Court

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First introduced in 1979 and last amended in 1996, the PRC Criminal Procedural Law (中华人民共和国刑事诉讼法) is also called the mini-constitution. Court proceedings in the mainland are notoriously secretive, with the public and media often banned from attending.

The changes to the Criminal Law now decrease transparency, as cases no longer have to be tried publicly if they involve commercial secrets. Previously, cases were only kept confidential if they involved state secrets.

As is often the case with China's laws, however, the draft amendments are unclear on what constitutes a commercial secret. This change would mean that businesses in China will now have to prove that their case involves sensitive commercial information before the court.

The reforms come as Supreme People's Court President Wang Shengjun delivered his annual report to the National People's Congress. Wang said courts need to improve transparency to create a better legal environment for the country. Considering these reforms, it seems China's judicial system is taking a step back despite Wang's call for greater participation by the public and for allowing media reports.

The contradicting views highlight a real problem with China's judicial system. As the President of the Supreme People's Court pledges transparency, the same body that received Wang's speech is removing the public from some first instance court proceedings. The move raises questions over whether changes are possible within China's courts.

While the bulk of cases involving foreign corporations are civil cases, the changes to the Criminal Law somewhat detract from Wang's call to speed up civil cases involving small monetary disputes as well as allowing the public to observe trials. The President of the Supreme People's Court can propose reforms, but ultimately power lies with the National People's Congress.

But it will be interesting to watch if Wang's proposals for greater transparency and reforms under civil law come into effect. Chinese courts are often subject to Communist Party involvement and such reforms could pave the way to ending some of this involvement. There is a chance Wang's reforms can promote the development of a transparent and high-quality judicial system in the People's Republic, but it all depends on those in power.

By David Tring

Further reading:

Supreme People's Court, Evidence in Civil Proceedings Several Provisions (最高人民法院关于民事诉讼证据的若干规定)

Reforming the Laws of Evidence in Civil Proceedings