March 15 (Bloomberg) -- China’s legislature appointed former provincial Communist Party chief Zhou Qiang as president of the country’s top judicial body, amid calls for Chinese courts to be granted greater independence.
Zhou, 52, was elected by a vote of 2,908 to 26, with 23 abstentions, at a session of the National People’s Congress today. The only person nominated for the job, he was previously Communist Party secretary in Hunan Province.
In his new post, Zhou may help President Xi Jinping in his stated efforts to make the judiciary more transparent and fair. Zhou takes over a court system that may have more freedom than the past and he has spoken out in favor of the rule of law, said Lin Yan, associate professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University KoGuan Law School.
“During his term in Hunan, Zhou Qiang stood out among provincial level leaders for overtly promoting the rule of law,” Lin said in an e-mail. “His political courage in this regard should be credited.”
The court may have more freedomn because the new head of the Communist Party’s political and legal affairs commission, Meng Jianzhu, wasn’t given a spot on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in a party leadership change last year. That restructuring will give the supreme court “more leeway to carry our necessary reforms,” including eliminating corruption and excess bureaucracy, Lin said.
Rule-of-law issues in China were thrust into the spotlight last year when blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after fleeing house arrest. Chen was later allowed to leave China for the U.S.
“What I am most concerned about is the state of law in China, which is very much being trampled,” Chen said during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations last June.
Analysts including Cheng Li of Washington’s Brookings Institution have named Zhou as a member of the so-called sixth generation of leaders positioned to succeed President Xi Jinping and Premier Li in a decade’s time. Zhou was passed over for membership in the ruling Politburo last year.
Zhou got legal training at Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing and later took a post at the Ministry of Justice, according to his official biography. Like former President Hu Jintao, who stepped down yesterday, Zhou previously headed the Communist Party Youth League.
In a 2011 interview in Beijing about rural land rights, Zhou emphasized that in Hunan there were “clear policy and legal provisions” to protect farmers’ land rights.
Li Keqiang, who also studied law and was appointed premier today, emphasized days after being promoted to the party’s No. 2 spot in November that an economy focused on market signals rather than the state was a “rule of law economy.” All moves to overhaul the country must be “within the legal framework,” he said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The Supreme People’s Court oversees a network of 32 high courts, 409 intermediate courts and 3,117 lower courts with a total of 190,000 legal officials, according to its website.
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