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Show of ethnic harmony at China legislature
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) March 16, 2013

Chinese lawyers cautious on new head of top court
Beijing (AFP) March 15, 2013 - A former legal scholar was named as head of China's top court Friday amid calls for the country's legal system to be given more independence.

But wary lawyers said Zhou Qiang was unlikely to grant the courts greater freedom, although they added he was likely to be an improvement on his predecessor.

Zhou, 52, formerly the top party official in the southern province of Hunan, who has a masters degree in law, was appointed head of the Supreme People's Court at the National People's Congress, China's rubber stamp parliament.

The supreme court is the highest court of review in all legal cases and approves all death sentences, but like all courts in China reaches verdicts with the guidance of officials from the ruling Communist Party.

Senior communist officials regularly promise to promote the rule of law, but the reality remains that political interference in trials is common, and acquittals are extremely rare.

Zhou replaces Wang Shengjun, a career official with no legal experience, who drew lawyers' ire for saying that the interests of the party came ahead of the constitution and the law after his appointment in 2008.

Legal specialists said Zhou could prove to be an improvement, but would be heavily constrained by his relatively low rank in the party hierarchy -- he is not a member of its 25-strong Politburo, only of the larger and lower Central Committee.

"His legal education means he might place more emphasis on using the law," said Pu Zhiqiang, one of China's most celebrated human rights lawyers, who has represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

But he added: "Basically Zhou is a politician... whether he promotes the development of China's legal system depends on other officials."

"I think there may be positive change, because he has a great educational background," said He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University, who studied with Zhou in the 1980s.

But Zhou's reputation among liberals was damaged by his handling of the death of Tiananmen activist Li Wangyang, who was found hanged in a hospital room in Hunan last year, with activists accusing local officials of foul play.

Human rights lawyer Li Fanping, who has been detained for taking on sensitive cases, was sceptical, saying: "His appointment is a slight improvement, but nothing fundamental will change... he still represents the party."

Wearing an embroidered cap signalling her Uighur ethnicity, Rehangul Yimir's presence in the Great Hall of the People symbolises Beijing's efforts to gloss over simmering frictions among its disparate peoples.

According to official figures Xinjiang is 46 percent Uighur -- who speak a Turkic language and are mostly Muslim -- and 39 percent Han Chinese, after millions moved to the area in recent decades.

Relations between them are often tense and riots rocked Xinjiang, which is twice the size of Turkey and rich in oil and gas, in 2009, when about 200 people died.

But Yimir, who at 24 is the youngest member of Xinjiang's delegation to the National People's Congress (NPC), is proud to uphold Beijing's banner of ethnic harmony, and expresses a keen interest in policy for the country's legions of migrant workers.

"I'm satisfied" with the central government's efforts on the issue, she told AFP, praising what she called measures to promote opportunities for her people to work in other parts of China.

The Communist Party line at the NPC, which ends on Sunday, is to stress warmth between China's 55 ethnic minorities and the Han majority, who comprise 91 percent of the population of 1.35 billion.

But far beyond the security bubble around the rubber-stamp legislature, the reality on the ground can be very different.

More than 100 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire, many fatally, since 2009 to protest state policies and express a desire for the return of the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

But Losang Jamcan, chairman of the Tibet regional government, stuck resolutely to the official line.

"We will absolutely resist the Dalai clique to maintain harmony and stability in Tibet and realise sustainable development," he said at the NPC. "We must cherish ethnic unity, as well as harmony and stability, as we do our own eyes."

The day Yimir spoke, several knife-wielding attackers killed four people and wounded eight others 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) away in the Xinjiang city of Korla, according to officials, amid reports of ethnic clashes and a security crackdown. Authorities later blamed a family dispute.

Such discord is rarely raised at delegations' NPC meetings, where "work reports" are read extolling progress. "Xinjiang natives are carefree," said an English-language brochure at the provincial gathering.

China says Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and rising living standards as a result of huge investment by Beijing. Xinjiang -- which straddles the Silk Road and has a strong trading history -- has a growing urban middle class.

Some minority figures who have embraced the status quo have achieved national prominence, including Fu Ying, an ethnic Mongol vice foreign minister and an NPC spokeswoman.

"Throughout the centuries, China has been a multi-ethnic society connected by a commitment to unity, prosperity and harmony," she wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper in 2009. "Unity is deep in the blood."

But those who question the state narrative face trouble. Rebiya Kadeer, once a wealthy businesswoman and NPC delegate, fell out with the government and was jailed before being released in 2005 and moving to the United States, where she now leads the World Uyghur Congress (WUC).

Beijing-backed Uighur delegates to the NPC can gain promotions, government positions and business opportunities for themselves and their families, she said.

"Most of these delegates are the people who think about their own personal interests," she told AFP in an email relayed by the WUC. "They don't care about their people and their suffering."

Some hope to do good, she added, but find the "bitter reality" is that they cannot speak out in Beijing. Giving them the opportunity to do so, she added, "could have eased the tensions and helped to foster integration in China".

Reza Hasmath, lecturer in Chinese politics at Oxford University, said there was strong pressure for minority ethnic groups to conform with the authorities.

"This is mainly due to the fact that minorities who cast their lot with the establishment can access Han social networks, which provides greater opportunities to higher status, and better paying jobs," he said by e-mail.

But Beijing's policies can prove counter-productive, Hasmath said.

Chinese authorities have slowly phased out the use of the Uighur language in most Xinjiang schools and universities, he noted, leaving Mandarin Chinese the main mode of instruction.

While the intent was to promote amalgamation, he said, "at the same time, it creates greater ethnic tension".


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