LOST YOUTH: Zhang Gaoping, 48, who was wrongfully charged with a rape and murder after a forced confession, shows a photo taken when he was 37 at his house in April 2013. He was acquitted after serving 10 years in jail in March 2013 (ZHANG DUAN)
When rule of law was first announced to be the primary topic for the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in July, the news thrilled many law professors.
"This is unprecedented," Li Buyun, a legal scholar, told Legal Weekly.
In September 1997, the report adopted at the 15th CPC National Congress historically dictated "governing the country according to the law and making it a socialist country ruled by the law." During the 1999 amendment to the Constitution, the exact dictate was written into the Constitution. Since then, the Party leadership has never stopped striving to promote the rule of law in China.
Between October 20 and 23, more than 200 members of the CPC Central Committee will convene in Beijing for their annual meeting, which steers the country's political path.
"Since the 18th CPC National Congress, the rule of law has achieved remarkable and historic progress in China," said Chen Guangzhong, a tenured professor of China University of Political Science and Law. "The top leadership's determination in promoting the reforms and achievements made so far has been relentless."
Xie Chuntao, a professor specializing in Party history at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, said the rule of law's resurgence to the Party's top agenda is a result of grave pressure exerted by problems challenging the country.
It is believed that corruption, labor disputes, pollution, land seizures and food safety problems all point to the urgent need to improve regulation and implementation.
Attaching great importance
Less than one month after being elected to be general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Xi Jinping delivered an important speech at a congress marking the 30th anniversary of the implementation of China's 1982 Constitution on December 4, 2012. Xi said that the supervising system that ensures the Constitution is carried out is not well established, and occasional dereliction of duty has dented the authority of the country's judicial system.
"No organization or individual has the privilege to overstep the Constitution and the law, and any violation of the Constitution and the law must be investigated," he said.
The strength of the message was soon felt during the following anti-corruption campaign that has targeted both low-ranking officials and people in the highest reaches of the Party, state and military hierarchies.
During the latest campaign, 41 ministry-level officials had been investigated for graft by the end of July, including Zhou Yongkang, who chaired the Committee of Political and Legal Affairs under the CPC Central Committee from 2007 to 2012.
An editorial from Xinhua News Agency called Zhou's fall as "a significant step forward for China's institution of the rule of law in China."
Addressing a teleconference on political and legal affairs in January 2013, Xi said that efforts should be made to ensure that people get justice in every judicial case, a sentiment that was later quoted by many media reports.
Xi's emphasis on the rule of law and an independent judiciary has been followed by the rectification of wrongful convictions.
In March 2013, 48-year-old Zhang Gaoping and his 37-year-old nephew Zhang Hui were acquitted after serving 10 years in jail for a wrongful charge of rape and murder after a forced confession.
In April of the same year, Li Huailiang, a farmer from Henan Province, was released after being jailed for 12 years for a murder and rape case in which he was not involved. Li claimed he only confessed because he was tortured by police during the interrogation.
In July, Zhejiang Higher People's Court retried two 18-year-old murder cases in light of new evidence and acquitted the five defendants.
In the decision on major issues concerning comprehensively deepening reforms adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the CPC Central Committee last November, promoting the rule of law in China was listed as one of the 16 chapters.
"The importance attached to rule of law in this decision is unprecedented for a Party document," said Zhang Wenxian, a law professor of Jilin University. Zhang said besides an independent chapter on the rule of law, all the 60 reform measures contained in the decision are all related to legal reforms in China.
The reeducation-through-labor system, which was instituted in 1957 and allowed detention for up to four years without an open trial, was officially abolished by a motion adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in December 2013.
"Legal scholars had been calling for the overhaul of the system for many years. Although we all knew that its abolition was only a matter of time, the current leadership's determination and action is admirable," said Professor Hou Xinyi from the School of Law of Nankai University.