‘Deepening Reform’ in Xi Jinping’s China: the case of China’s criminal trial reforms

Susan Trevaskes1
1Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia

Reform has been the central feature of discourse, governance and legal practice sustaining China’s criminal justice system in China for over forty years. This still holds today, with ‘Deepening Reform’ as one of the four pillars of President Xi Jinping’s ‘Four Comprehensives’ political theory which is his strategy for China’s national rejuvenation. A second pillar of this strategy is yifa zhiguo or ‘governing the nation in accordance with the law’. One important criminal justice system reform introduced under the umbrella of yifa zhiguo is ‘making the trial hearing central to the criminal process’. It is usually referred to in English translations as ‘trial centeredness’ and its procedural justice goals have now emerged as a major agenda of Xi’s justice system reform drive.  The central rationale behind this reform is to prevent miscarriages of justice. In this paper, I examine the political utility of trial centeredness as a reform concept. I seek to identify how it serves to embody a particular notion of reform in China’s authoritarian state. I argue that whereas the trial centeredness concept is indeed to signal and induce reform, the nature of the reform intended through trial centeredness is beyond what we might conventionally understand to be procedural justice reform. Xi Jinping aims to reform hearts and minds to prevent miscarriages of justice, rather than reforming the structures of power that facilitate and enable its abuse.

Susan Trevaskes is professor of Chinese Studies in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences at Griffith University, Australia. Her China-related research interests include criminal courts, policing serious crime, the death penalty, justice and the political nature of criminal justice in China. She has published sole-authored books in the area of Chinese criminal justice studies: Courts and Criminal Justice in Contemporary China (2007), Policing Serious Crime in China: from ‘strike hard’ to ‘kill fewer’ (2010) and The Death Penalty in Contemporary China (2012). Her co-edited volumes include The Politics of Law and Stability in China (2014), Legal Reforms and Deprivation of Liberty in Contemporary China (2016) and Justice: the China Experience (2017).


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