China courts somewhat lift veils but keep courtrooms under tight control
By Didi Tang, APBEIJING--China's notoriously opaque courts have suddenly embraced social media to provide a window into their proceedings, to boost a skeptical public's confidence in the country's Communist Party-controlled legal system.
October 2, 2013, 12:09 am TWN
Nearly 1,000 Chinese courts have set up microblog accounts. One in central China released a blow-by-blow of a murder appeal last week, complete with a photo of the convict signing his verdict in handcuffs.
Another court in the southwest has released transcripts of 39 cases on social media since May. A Beijing court held a rare online question-and-answer chat session last week about a high-profile rape trial. And perhaps most surprisingly, the long-awaited trial of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai in August was largely tweeted directly from the courthouse.
China's courts are releasing information online to build an image of transparency and improve accessibility. Chinese legal scholars and lawyers applaud the moves but warn they may be more about propaganda than transparency. Courtroom audiences remain tightly controlled, and the courts can easily filter sensitive information as they release details via Twitter-like feeds. Lawyers are barred from discussing their cases online.
“If they are sincere, why not open the court trials to all on a first-come, first-serve basis and open up the docket after the trial for all to see?” asked Shanghai lawyer Wu Pengbin. “Why bother with microblogging?”
Legal experts also say there is no reason to believe that the changes are a step toward judicial independence, because the Communist Party remains firmly in control of the courts.
“It would be revolutionary if the gate is thrown wide open. Legal injustice will have nowhere to hide, but the corrupt and the powerful will obstruct the process to prevent their evil acts from being exposed,” said He Bin, a law professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law.
Under Chinese law, legal cases that do not involve national security or minors should be open, but in reality, court proceedings and documents are often closed to the public and sometimes even to litigants and their attorneys.
Public attendance at high-profile trials is tightly controlled. The courts assign seats to trusted persons while turning down journalists and members of the public on grounds of limited courtroom space.
The opaqueness and the lack of independence of the Chinese courts have severely hurt their credibility among members of the public, and officials have taken note. In a sign of dissatisfaction, the annual work report by the Chinese Supreme Court received, embarrassingly, a record number of opposition and abstaining votes in the last National People's Congress.
He, the law professor, said the newly appointed Supreme Court president, Zhou Qiang, has been under pressure to improve the courts' reputation and has found a breakthrough in promoting openness. The Sina Weibo microblogging of Bo's trial was especially well-received, He said.
“Openness is the precondition of justice,” He said. “The move has been welcomed by both the legal community and the public.”