China's top judge warns courts on judicial independence

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s courts must firmly resist the Western idea of judicial independence and other ideologies that threaten the leadership of the ruling Communist Party, the country’s top judge was reported as saying by the official China News Service.

Courts in China are not independent and ultimately answer to the party leadership, although legal reforms unveiled in recent years have aimed to give judges more independence and rein in local officials’ influence over courts.

Authorities in Beijing say China requires a different kind of legal system from Western models, one in keeping with a system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, where reforms strengthen, rather than weaken, Party leadership.

People’s Courts at all levels must disregard erroneous Western notions, including constitutional democracy and separation of powers, Chief Justice Zhou Qiang told a meeting of the Supreme People’s Court on Saturday, the agency said.

Zhou’s comments sparked much critical public discussion, with online participants citing comments in a 2012 interview by Jiang Ping, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, that only judicial independence could allow China to ensure a “just judiciary”.

However, searches for the article brought up no results on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like equivalent, by early afternoon on Monday.

In response to the discussion, the Supreme People’s Court posted four articles on its official Weibo account late on Saturday, expanding on Zhou’s statements and defending him against those who accused him of “driving against the tide of history”.

An article by the Court’s official publicity department took aim at those who “agitate” for judicial independence, saying they were using the people’s desire for social justice to further their own political ends.

Creating a legal system independent of the party “clearly violates the constitution”, which says administrative, trial and prosecution authorities are all subservient to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, the court said.

Since taking office in March 2013, President Xi Jinping, who has a doctorate in law, has vowed to put “power within the cage of regulations” and called for judicial independence under the party.

Zhou’s comments on Saturday come after China’s anti-graft watchdog ruled out the possibility of a mechanism independent of the Communist Party to keep officials in check.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) this month pledged to create a national supervisory commission and a corresponding national law, as part of efforts to reform the oversight system.

But the reforms would stop short of placing power outside the party, commission officials said.

Reporting by Nicholas Heath, Lusha Zhang and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Clarence Fernandez