Thursday, October 25, 2007

Leadership Transition Points to Possible Reduction in Police Power

[Edited 10/29/07]

The ascension of Zhou Yongkang (周永康) to the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, announced at the close of the 17th Party Congress, leaves an opening at the head of the Ministry of Public Security. This position will reportedly be filled by Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱), who previously served as the party secretary of Jiangxi Province.

This transition in leadership could significantly affect the power of the Ministry of Public Security and China's police. Holding a concurrent position on the Politburo, Zhou Yongkang was the most powerful public security minister in recent history. From this position, he ushered in new reforms designed to professionalize China’s police force—while also boosting the political leverage of the Ministry of Public Security vis-à-vis other bodies in China’s criminal justice system, particularly the courts and the procuratorate. The result has been a failure to move forward on key legal reforms that would limit police power over detention and the criminal investigation process.

When Meng Jianzhu takes over as public security minister, it will be from a far weaker political position than Zhou. Meng will presumably even have to wait until at least next spring’s plenary session of the National People’s Congress to become a member of the Standing Committee of the State Council (China’s cabinet). Analysts predict that Meng and future public security ministers will not be allowed to hold a concurrent position on the Politburo precisely in order to limit the power of the police among China’s legal institutions.

Zhou Yongkang is now expected to take over from Luo Gan (罗干) as head of the Central Party Political-Legal Committee, arguably an even more powerful position, since this body sets policies and oversees all the institutions in China’s legal system. However, it is yet unclear whether Zhou—who has long focused on the importance of maintaining social stability—will continue to favor the extra power of the police from his new post. It is possible that, in fact, Zhou will be forced to pay more consideration to greater balance among the institutions in the criminal justice system, which would mean more authority and oversight by the courts and procuratorate. If so, it would be a welcome step toward establishing a more just and credible legal system for China.

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