Although many reforms are still at the pilot stage, real progress has been made in advancing the rule of law in China in the past year. Aside from corruption investigations, a series of mistrials were placed under the legal microscope. Among them was the retrial of the Hugjiltu case involving the wrongful conviction and subsequent execution of a teenager accused of rape and murder. From reforms of the judicial system to the implementation of a system that accords lifelong responsibility to judges for the cases they handle and the decisions they make, new breakthroughs have materialized.
The efforts of the Supreme People's Court (SPC) and the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) in improving the rule of law have won widespread public recognition. At the latest session of the National People's Congress, the SPC and SPP work reports received approval ratings of 91 percent and 87.9 percent respectively, a 10-year high. Over the previous decade, the approval rates for the two never exceeded 85 percent.
Since the convening of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, a strong anti-graft drive has brought a number of corrupt officials to justice. 2014 saw 28 criminal cases concerning officials at the ministerial level and above.
Judicial bodies at all levels have conducted careful investigations into cases of corruption. The punishments meted out represent an active response to public concern. In particular, the open trials held for sensitive, high-profile cases, such as that involving Bo Xilai, former Party chief of Chongqing, embody the principle of equality before the law.
SPC and SPP chiefs said that with respect to wrongful convictions, judicial bodies need to take their own failings into account, and that those responsible for unprofessional conduct in the prosecution process cannot remain unaccountable. Meanwhile, creating a mechanism to allow rehabilitation of wrongful convictions is vitally important.
In 2015, arduous challenges lie ahead. Although many corrupt officials have been apprehended, corruption is endemic in government departments to different extents. Systematic checks and balances of power are insufficient. The Hugjiltu case was, after all, only retried after another suspect confessed to the crime. Minimizing the possibility of a miscarriage of justice at every point from investigation to trial is paramount. Judicial departments must recognize the wolves in their midst and come down hard on nepotism and judicial bias in favor of the rich and the privileged.
The SPC and the SPP have assessed current judicial conditions and responded to the public's expectations in their work reports. Together, these set the tone for future efforts to promote the rule of law. While the judicial system needs to sustain its efforts, the involvement of the whole of society is equally essential.