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How The Internet Can Make China A More Just Nation

A senior judge in Yunnan province writes an open plea for such advances as live-streaming trials and online coverage of courts to help make Chinese justice more open, free and fair.

A trial in Chongqing, southwestern China
A trial in Chongqing, southwestern China
Tian Chengyou*

The recently concluded Third Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee gave new impetus to promoting judicial openness and a broader reform of the justice system. But how can this be achieved? One answer would be by making justice more transparent through the Internet.

In recent years, in order to guarantee open trials, all levels of courts have established a whole set of measures such as trial observers, press releases, and public communication systems. But modern technology presents a very real alternative to such conventional methods for oversight. Through live streaming of trials and online postings of the sentence documents, the public can be informed of every move without going to court in person.

While news was traditionally transmitted through newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, television or other channels, the appearance of Internet and the use of micro-blogging are rapidly challenging the mystery, delay and choices of conventional press reports.

Software, not hardware

The key to understanding whether or not China’s People’s Courts will truly implement judicial openness does not lie in the actual state of equipment or in difficulties establishing Internet contact, but in whether or not the courts dare to take the opportunities offered by the Internet to promote openness.

That China’s Supreme People’s Court proposes to post its court verdicts online is a powerful commitment. It is the embodiment of the principle of public trial, and is rewarded in the public’s satisfaction in being informed. This allows for the public to supervise justice, the exchange of information as well as sharing experiences among different levels of courts and judges, and the unification and standardization of justice.

For instance, in the closely watched trial of Bo Xilai, Jinan City’s Intermediate People’s Court posted via live micro-blogging the hearing of the first verdict. This not only satisfied a vast Chinese public interest in the case, but also showed the new Chinese leadership’s high self-confidence in the ruling, the rule of law and a commitment to anti-corruption.

Police officers pass by the Jinan Intermediate People's Court — Wang Shen/Xinhua/ZUMA

Openness not only can guide public opinion effectively, but will also raise people’s legal understanding. Public disclosure of a trial isn’t just about explaining the judicial procedure to the concerned parties but also to the public at large. Chinese courts should overcome their fear of the Internet and seize this new opportunity to explore a more rational and effective mechanism for communication between the justice system and public opinion.

China’s courts ought to be building their own sites, focusing on the main trials and the cases that arouse most concern among the public. The website should be a platform of information disclosure, judicial advocacy and a service to people. It is to play the role of a public platform, a rule-maker in discussion, and a rapid publisher of information rather than remaining a “superficial exercise in image construction.”

In the past, China’s judicial secrecy created a threshold for participation. Once information is disclosed, and the judicial system is supervised, both rights and powers can rise and fall together. This would be a breakthrough for truly deep judicial reform.

Yet even while satisfying the public’s new demand for transparency, the use of the Internet ought to be handled with care. A citizen’s privacy should be thoroughly protected, and the negative impact of litigation should be minimized to any individual. To do this, when the trial is put in live-streaming online, the witness and the victim should remain anonymous. Their faces shouldn’t be exposed clearly and the publication of court verdict should not include personal information about the concerned parties.

The specific cases should be guided by set rules, not be the arbitrary choice of the courts, nor of the concerned parties. Openness is the principle; non-openness is the exception.

*Tian Chengyou is the Vice President of the Yunnan Provincial Higher Court.

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