BEIJING (AP) — China's top judge dismissed the concept of judicial independence as an "erroneous Western ideal" in remarks that seemed to emphasize the Communist Party's ultimate control over all areas of public life.
Zhou Qiang, the head of the Supreme People's Court, has at times been seen as a reformer keen on limiting the influence of government officials on the courts, but his recent statement drew criticism from legal professionals.
Chinese state media quoted him over the weekend as instructing leading judges to "draw your sword" against words and actions that run counter to party dictates.
Since seizing power in 1949, the party has maintained strict control over the government, judiciary and military despite the rapid social change accompanying breakneck economic growth. Leaders in recent years have firmly rejected calls for political reform, crushing the 1989 pro-democracy movement and harassing and imprisoning advocates of change, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Responding to Zhou's comments, Chinese legal scholars including Peking University professor He Weifang said the public would lose confidence in a legal system seen to be in thrall to the party.
"If there is no judicial independence, the ultimate result can only be injustice everywhere, sparking unrest. Calling judicial independence a Western concept and taking joy in its elimination is the sort of talk and action that leads to disaster for the nation and its people," He wrote.
Scores of lawyers also signed an open online letter calling for Zhou's resignation. The concept of judicial independence is not a Western concept, but one recognized around the world, the letter said, and Zhou's remarks attacking the concept had "caused an inevitable, harmful effect on Chinese society."
Despite his reform reputation, Zhou at other times has criticized ideas he deemed unsuitable for China's political system. In 2015, he told a party committee that the high court will "resolutely resist the influence of mistaken Western concepts and ways of thinking."
China rejects the notion of an American-style separation of powers and its constitution emphasizes the unassailable primacy of the Communist Party. But the same constitution also calls for courts to exercise judicial power independently and be free from "interference by administrative organs, public organizations or individuals."
In his remarks, first reported Saturday by the state-controlled China News Service, Zhou also urged China's judges to avoid the "trap" of judicial independence, follow the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics and "protect government leaders, the image of heroes, and the glorious history of the party and the People's Army" according to the law.
Following his ascension as party leader in 2012, President Xi Jinping has emphasized the importance of governing through laws and regulations, rather than official fiat. Yet that is seen as merely an attempt to codify party dominance, and legal and political experts say that party leaders have not only maintained their grip over the courts but increasingly wield the legal system as a lever of power.
Xi has also demanded strict ideological conformity within the party and repeatedly cautioned against liberal Western values seeping into China's political sphere and the classroom. His administration rounded up dozens of lawyers and civil society activists in 2015, leveling state subversion charges against many, while cracking down on any criticism of the party or attempts to openly question its history.
Last year, a Beijing court convicted a writer of libel after he challenged the veracity of a famous tale of Communist Party soldiers sacrificing themselves against the Japanese.
In December, Beijing prosecutors dropped criminal charges against five police officers over the death of a man who died in their custody — after concluding the officers had used excessive force and sought to cover up the man's death. The prosecutors' 180-degree turn sparked outrage among many in China's urban middle class who suspected that political interference prevented the prosecution.
Days after the court case was dropped, the Communist Party said it would discipline the officers through its own, separate channels.
Zhou's weekend meeting with top judges came weeks after the party's powerful anti-corruption agency wrapped up an internal investigation of the Supreme People's Court. Zhou, who has a master's degree in law and took over as chief justice in 2013, has previously criticized the judiciary for the prevalence of wrongful convictions and warned against the use of testimony obtained through torture.
Peking University School of Transnational Law scholar Susan Finder said that given Zhou's sometimes frank criticism of the system, many legal experts wondered whether his warnings about Western influence — a common party refrain since Xi took power — indeed reflected his own thinking or were required of him.
Eva Pils, a Chinese legal expert at King's College London, said Zhou's comments reflected clear instructions coming from the top that the courts must be part of the fight against China's perceived foreign enemies and domestic dissidents.
The message is that "it is the Party that decides who the enemies are, and it protects the people against its enemies," Pils said. "The courts are merely there to implement Party will."