Zhou Qiang, chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court, at the third plenary meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing last year. Zhou recently told provincial judges to resist “erroneous” Western ideals of judicial independence, constitutional democracy and the separation of powers. (China Daily via Reuters)

For 500 days, Li Chunfu, once a lively and tough human rights lawyer, was kept in secret detention by China’s Communist Party. When he was finally released on Jan. 12, his wife was so shocked she could hardly believe her eyes.

Her 44-year-old husband was a thin, pale and sick man, Bi Liping said, a fearful and paranoid person who seemed to have been broken by the system.

A Beijing hospital soon gave him a tentative diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Li was one of 300 lawyers and advocates who were rounded up in a crackdown in July 2015. Most were soon released, but two have been sentenced and four remain in detention.

In statements to the China Change website, relatives and fellow lawyers said Li had been severely tortured and drugged during detention.

But his story is not the only one to have cast a shadow over the rule of law in China this month.

In a remarkable speech two days after Li’s release, the chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court told provincial judges to resist “erroneous” Western ideals of judicial independence, constitutional democracy and the separation of powers.

“One needs to have a clear-cut stand and dare to show the sword against them, to struggle against any erroneous words and actions that deny the leadership of the Communist Party, or slander the rule of law and the judicial system of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Zhou Qiang said.

While the idea that the Communist Party is in firm control of the legal system is hardly new, to see the idea of judicial independence so explicitly condemned by the country’s top judge, a man once seen as a reformer keen on limiting officials’ power over local courts, came as a shock to many people.

Two open letters expressing outrage at Zhou’s remarks are circulating, one signed by 23 lawyers and another signed by 155 leading liberal intellectuals.

“In the past few years, the legal community has been working hard toward establishing an independent judicial system,” said Lin Liguo, a former lawyer based in Shanghai who wrote the lawyers’ letter.

Lin said Zhou’s remarks had burst reformers’ optimism. “What Zhou said is basically that we don’t need judicial independence at all,” he said. “That’s why people are so upset.”

At a key meeting in October 2014, the party’s top leaders promised to give judges more independence from interference by local officials, and President Xi Jinping has often pledged to strengthen the rule of law — while at the same time underlining that the Communist Party remains firmly in control and effectively above the law.

Yet such was the controversy stirred by Zhou’s remarks that the Supreme Court issued five separate social media posts last week, each hundreds of words long, explaining and amplifying his remarks. At first, they attracted hundreds of comments from ordinary people, until censors shut down the comment function.

In a blog post, Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law at New York University School of Law, called it “the most enormous ideological setback for decades of halting, uneven progress toward the creation of a professional, impartial judiciary.”

He said there was “enormous dissatisfaction among many judges at the restrictive, anti-Western legal values being imposed by President Xi Jinping, with many younger officials leaving the courts and procuracy for work in law firms, business and teaching.”

Eva Pils, an expert in transnational law at King’s College London, said Zhou’s speech came as a “real shock” to people in the legal system who had been educated to believe that China was striving for better rule of law and who found it unacceptable that their country was “departing so completely and so rapidly from the reform path.”

It is, in other words, one more nail in the coffin of the idea that China’s legal and political system would ultimately move in a more liberal direction, experts said.

“I think that lots of people are still in denial about this departure from the reform path, and the turn to rule by fear, and that they are unwilling to consider the full implications of the new rhetoric,” Pils said.

Experts said Zhou may have come under pressure to publicly declare his loyalty to the party, especially as a team from the Communist Party’s anti-corruption arm had been reportedly carrying out an inspection of the Supreme Court since ­mid-November. Ensuring his appointment was renewed at a major party Congress in October may have played a part, they said.

But Zhou’s words still came across as particularly strident, as he insisted on the importance of “ideological work” and recommended judges “severely strike” at people who use the Internet to endanger national security — code for undermining the Communist Party.

He also recommended judges protect the images of leaders, heroes and historical figures, “to resolutely safeguard the glorious history of the Party and the People’s Army.”

Zhou’s warning echoes Xi’s campaign against “historical nihilism” — questioning the Communist Party’s heroic account of its own history. In the past few weeks alone, a Chinese professor and a government official were both sacked, and a TV producer was suspended, for criticizing Mao Zedong, who is officially revered as the founder of modern China even though he presided over the deaths of tens of millions of people in a famine during the Great Leap Forward and unimaginable cruelty during the Cultural Revolution.

The case of the lawyer Li has underlined what happens to people who dare to challenge the party.

Li grew up poor in China’s central Henan province. He dropped out of school at 14 to work in factories but spent six grueling years studying in his spare time to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a lawyer.

Maya Wang at Human Rights Watch said it was unclear what he was supposed to have done wrong — perhaps demonstrating outside a police bureau in Heilongjiang in 2014 to demand access to his client, perhaps being the brother of Li Heping, a well-known civil rights lawyer who was also detained in July 2015, or perhaps simply being tarred as an agent of a hostile foreign government.

But what broke him is no mystery, she said in a statement, citing how suspects are frequently beaten, hung by their wrists and deprived of sleep, as well as subjected to indefinite isolation and threats to their families.

Chen Jiangang, also a lawyer, said Li had lost about 30 pounds in detention. He described his close friend’s mental health as worrying.

“He is constantly in doubt and fear after his release,” Chen said. “He is always fearful of police showing up to take him away. He is always fearful of leaving the house. Even when he is surrounded by family and friends, he still keeps asking, ‘Are they coming to get me?’ ”

Human Rights Watch’s Wang said China will have “zero credibility on rule of law” as long as individuals are tortured with impunity. “Li will likely never be the same after this horrific experience — and neither should Beijing,” she said.

Luna Lin and Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.