BEIJING — China’s Communist leaders promised legal reforms on Thursday that could give judges more independence from interference by local officials but will leave the party essentially above the law, after a high-level meeting that had been billed as a pivotal moment in the country’s legal history.
After a four-day closed-door session, the party’s elite Central Committee pledged to promote “the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics.”
Far from a Western notion of the separation of powers, the communique made it clear the Communist Party remained the ultimate authority in the country, and talk of reform seemed largely aimed at improving local governance and calming rising social unrest.
Protests and violence often break out in China over land grabs and pollution, with angry residents feeling as if they have no recourse to the law against corrupt local officials in league with developers and industry. Changes to the system are expected to be slow and modest, and few details were released on Thursday, barring some vague promises.
Courts should be removed from the jurisdiction of local officials but will still be answerable to the party at a higher level, the communique pledged; files should be kept to record when party officials get involved in legal matters, while judges should be chosen from the ranks of legal professionals.
“Landmark change didn’t happen, but we should not be too cynical,” said Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “My sense is that the legal profession in general, and in particular liberal scholars, won’t really be inspired by this, but the public may think it is good.”
Since taking over as president last year, Xi Jinping has waged a major, and popular, campaign to root out corruption within the party.
The latest moves appear to be in line with his efforts to reform the party from within and bolster its popular legitimacy, centralizing control and reining in corrupt local officials while at the same time cracking down on anyone who dares question the party’s ultimate authority.
In a widening clampdown on dissent, prominent civil rights lawyers have been arrested or thrown off cases for arguing that China should respect its own laws or that party officials should declare their assets.
Si Weijiang, a Shanghai-based human rights lawyer, said the communique appeared to be repeating “the old rhetoric,” adding that he anticipated little change in the way that the party interfered in the judicial process.
“It mentioned some things they might explore, but that’s way in the future,” he said. “I don’t see any concrete measures to ensure independent courts and prosecutions.”
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.