BEIJING — China's increasingly independent parliament approved sweeping changes Friday in the country's criminal law, eliminating notorious "counterrevolutionary" statutes used by the Communist regime to prosecute and jail thousands of political opponents.
International legal scholars have cautiously welcomed the reforms, which were unveiled last year. But they also noted that the often-abused statutes have been replaced with other laws, including sedition statutes, that can be used to stifle dissent.
On paper, at least, the legal reforms include provisions covering the right of legal counsel; presumption of innocence; limitations on detention without formal charges; and curbs on the power of public security bureaus to act without supervision.
But international human rights organizations have cautioned that the reforms are not likely to have any short-term impact on the country's harsh treatment of political dissidents.
Last year, for example, two of China's leading dissidents, student leader Wang Dan and longtime democracy advocate Wei Jingsheng, were sentenced to long prison terms on charges of "conspiring to overthrow the government."
Moreover, in debate leading up to the vote on legal reforms, many delegates, citing a breakdown in law and order, called for harsher punishment for criminal offenders.
"There were some definite mixed signals here," said a Western diplomat who attended the annual session of the National People's Congress, which concluded Friday. "On the one hand, the delegates approved the reforms. On the other hand, they pushed hard for tougher enforcement."
Public opinion polls list crime as the major concern of China's citizens.
The law-and-order mood of the parliament was heightened last week when a bomb exploded on a public bus in one of the capital's main shopping areas during rush hour, injuring at least 10 people. The weeks following the Feb. 19 death of Chinese "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping have been marked by increasing terrorist activity among Muslim separatists in the far western Xinjiang region.
Also Friday, the normally rubber-stamp parliament issued a surprisingly strong rebuke of the government's efforts to control crime and corruption. In assessing the annual report by the procurator general--the government's top prosecutor--more than 40% of the 2,750 delegates either voted their disapproval, abstained or failed to vote. A year before, delegates recorded a 27% negative tally on the same issue.
The parliament has never rejected a proposal set before it. Friday's vote, in fact, was the largest negative response ever and reflects a gradual trend toward independence by China's main lawmaking body, one that some China scholars see as a possible vehicle for the development of a democratic society after decades of autocratic rule.
Previous displays of opposition came in 1992, when nearly 32% of the lawmakers disapproved or abstained in a vote on plans to build the massive Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River in central China. In 1995, more than 27% of the delegates failed to support Jiang Chunyun, a candidate for vice premier who was handpicked by Chinese President and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin.
Xu Xin, a delegate representing the People's Liberation Army, called Friday's negative votes a mild statement of dissatisfaction with the work of the procurator general.
"It's a big country," Xu said. "Naturally some people are opposed. It shows the spirit of democracy here."
But another delegate, Lu Jianchang, from China's impoverished Guangxi province, said the vote reflected a deeper discontentment with the government's inconsistent efforts to curb corruption.
"Sometimes things are not done according to the law," Lu said. "We have several economic cases in Guangxi that have not been decided fairly."
Nevertheless, Lu said he was surprised by the size of the negative vote, which produced a wave of murmurs as the tally was displayed on an electronic screen in the cavernous Great Hall of the People.