Critical thoughts about the Chinese Judicial Reform

Kitaw Yayehyirad KITAW (Yayeh KITAW) – 11 February 2017

The recent article on Judicial Reforms in China describes the reforms undertaken by the regime to restructure the judiciary branch. It argues that the reforms have strengthened the Chinese Communist party and solidified ‘rule by law’ rather than ‘rule of law ‘and reaffirms the regime’s rejection of the principle of judiciary independence.

The principle of judicial independence is respected in all liberal democracies.(Heywood, 2003, p. 35). Only in the last few decades, developing nations have been in a position to independently criticize such principles and closely related concepts such as the free market, secular liberal democracy and the nation-state framework in international relations (Fuller, 1995, p. 5)

Indeed, over the past decades, the Chinese leadership for instance, has been strongly underlining its distance from the principles of separation of powers. They tend to wrongly attribute these principles as being a ‘Western value’ (presumably inferred from their original proprietorship) when they are, in essence, applicable and inherently acceptable to all societies.

As Fuller asserts, all people ultimately desire a voice in the decisions that determine their fates and lives (Fuller, 1995, p. 4) and such a desire a fortiori  includes the quest for fair and independent justice.

The question is whether Fuller’s assertion is truly universal and if so, why have the Chinese authorities (and others) been unwilling to unconditionally adhere to its universality beyond labeling it as Western thinking as reflected by the Chinese Chief of Justice blatant declaration that ‘Chinese should not fail into the trap of the Western erroneous thinking and the independence of justice’.

As the article points out, there is an announced intent by the Chinese authorities to improve accountability and transparency by undertaking the Judiciary reforms. They remain, however, limited mainly to procedural reforms that do not question the overall absolute power of the ruling party over the judiciary and other branches.

All in all, my personal believe is that the principles of separation of powers (including the independence of the judiciary) are inherently universal principles (not exclusive Western values albeit their origins attributed to Aristotle, Montesquieu etcetera). They are applicable to and acceptable in all societies as human will ultimately seek a voice, impartiality and independence in decisions that affect their fate. Yet, the pace and forms of institutionalizing such principles is inevitably prone to variations and subject to many cultural and historical conditions. What remains critically important is that the reforms trend towards the independence of the judiciary as such principles will ultimately build societies benefiting from an impartial, fair and equitable justice for its inhabitants.

Y. Kitaw
PhD Fellow in Governance and Policy Analysis at UNU-MERIT Maastricht University
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My comments on the Freedom on the Net 2016

The annual survey and analysis of internet and digital media freedom around the world ‘Freedom on the Net 2016’ reveals yet another decline of Internet freedom around the world.
Using a methodology that includes several ITU figures (in particular for the index on ‘Obstacles to Access’ assessing to what extent infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet), the report entitled ‘Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps Under Pressure‘ concludes with the following key findings:
    • Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.​
    • Two-thirds of all internet users – 67 percent – live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship.
    • Social media users face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year. Globally, 27 percent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.
    • Governments are increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which can spread information quickly and securely.​

​​​Interestingly, the report displays a chart showing Internet Freedom vs Internet Penetration and GDP without providing any ​comment.

The chart triggers a variety of questions ranging from the linkages​ between Internet Freedom and GDP up to the correlations between ICT growth, development and democracy.

Indeed, the Internet presents the ‘Dictator’s dilemma’ for authoritarian regimes.

On one hand, shutting it down can hurt their economy. On the other, leaving it open and unrestricted can threaten their power grip as it facilitates their citizens’ ability to access and share political information and engage collectively.

Most often respond to this dilemma through sophisticated and opaque ways, taking advantage of the tool,  by for example promoting e-government as a means to strengthen their authoritarian rule while tightening control and surveillance. (see figure from the World Development Report 2016 – Digital Dividends​)

Source: World Development Report 2016
While there is abundant ICT4D literature on the linkages between Information Technologies and International Development in general, much more remains to be explored on the correlation/causal linkages between ICT penetration, Development and Democratization at a global level as well as specific case studies including cultural and historical insights.

Trump, the United Nations and ITU

​​The United States presidential campaign has polarised positions around many issues (including some global ICT related ones).

While it is difficult to have a comprehensive assessment of all statements referring to technology, read ‘between the lines’ and discern clear positions, here are some interresting quotes from the candidates relating to ICTs and the UN that may affect ITU and its work.
Most of them are important in the United States national context but some ICT related statements related to Internet governance policy, Cyberwarfare and Cybersecurity, reduced commitment to Climate Change, balance between security and liberty, have international importance, will impact the United Nations and global ICT matters (hence ITU)
Here are some quotes (with links) and other related resources.
  • ​”The election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president was met with disbelief and despondency among some United Nations officials and diplomats” writes Michelle Nichols for Reuters.
  • senior Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity ‘Many are assuming a Trump administration will be less engaged with UN than Obama’s administrat​ion, which was more committed to working for collective solutions than previous U.S. administrations

  • One big question is whether Trump will moderate his position on climate change“, said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert who has written on what a Trump administration could mean for the United Nations.
  • Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, stated “It is difficult to press other countries to respect human rights when your own government is sometimes ignoring them.”
  • U.N. officials, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein, have spoken out against Trump, saying he would be “dangerous from an international point of view.”​
  • An article at DemocracyNow states that “Trump Climate Denial Threatens U.N. Climate Change Agreement and  that many delegates to the U.N. talks are expressing panic over the election of Donald Trump, saying the outcome threatens the future of any international agreement to slow catastrophic climate change. The Republican president-elect has said he will “cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs.”

  • Trump: “We invented Internet but ISIS is beating us at our own game. How do we fight a cyber attack?” during the First 2016 Presidential Debate at Hofstra Univers​ity in Sep 26, 2016
  • Question and answer with Trump
    Q: You recently suggested “closing that Internet up,” as a way to stop ISIS from recruiting online. Some say that would put the US in line with China and North Korea.
    TRUMP: ISIS is recruiting through the Internet. ISIS is using the Internet better than we are using the Internet, and it was our idea. I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I don’t want to let people that want to kill us use our Internet.
    Source: 2015 CNN/Salem Republican two-tier debate , Dec 15, 2015

And finally, a well summed up article entitled ‘US Presidential Elections – and the candidates’ stance on digital policy​‘ by the Geneva Internet Platform with the digital policy stances of both candidates.

Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion a year

Around the world, digital technology is seen as vital for economic development. In the U.S. alone, the internet accounts for about six percent of the entire e​conomy. Digital technology has expanded its role in the global economy in recent years, as both developed and developing nation​s have become increasingly reliant on the internet.

The centrality of the internet to social and economic life recently led the United Nations to enact a resolution supporting the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet.” The resolution specifically condemns state efforts to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to information online.

Yet powerful forces continue to threaten the vitality of the internet. In recent years, a number of countries have blocked particular applications, shut down specific digital services, turned off mobile telecommunications services, or disrupted the entire internet. Government officials give many reasons for ordering these disruptions, such as safeguarding government authority, reducing public dissidence, fighting terrorism, maintaining national security, or protecting local businesses.

Those actions separate people from their family, friends, and livelihoods, undermine economic growth, interfere with the startup ecosystem, and threaten social stability by interrupting economic activity, says Darrell West in a new paper​. In “Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion last year,” West analyzes the economic impact of temporary internet shutdowns. He examines 81 short-term shutdowns in 19 countries over the past year and estimates their impact on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of those nations. Based upon this analysis, West finds that between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, internet shutdowns cost at least US$2.4 billion in GDP globally. Economic losses include $968 million in India, $465 million in Saudi Arabia, $320 million in Morocco, $209 million in Iraq, $72 million in the Republic of the Congo, $69 million in Pakistan, $48 million in Syria, $35 million in Turkey and $9 million in Ethiopia​, among other places. These are conservative estimates that consider only reductions in economic activity and do not account for tax losses or drops in investor, business, and consumer confidence.

Clearly, internet disruptions are creating significant detrimental impacts on economic activity in a number of nations around the world. And, as West writes, “As the digital economy expands, it will become even more expensive for nations to shut down the internet. Without coordinated action by the international community, this damage is likely to accelerate in the future and further weaken global economic development.”​​

Read full report here ​


I strive to advocate that multilateral organizations engaged in Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) should pursue their missions with a deeper understanding of nuanced issues beyond technology advancements; and this by driving thinking and advocating practices so that innovation and technology advancements are informed by their social and human impacts when addressing developmental challenges.

– Currently a PhD Fellow conducting evidence-based doctoral research on Information and Communication Technologies’ linkages to democratic governance and sustainable development in the context of authoritarian regimes to obtain a PhD in Governance and Policy Analysis at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance

– Holder of an MBA in Management of Technology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) with an educational background in computer engineering and over 15 years of experience related to Information Technology with solid business understanding

– Served ITU, the United Nations’ specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the Information Services as Project Lead, Web and Internet Specialist and also as Strategy and Policy Analyst in the Corporate Strategy Division.

– Interested in a broad range of issues at the intersection of Technology and Society in particular E-governance, ICT-enabled Innovation and Societal Transformations.

– Written (often quoted) paper on E-government in Africa, multilingualism on the Internet.

– ​Led authoring of a business plan for seed funding a start-up​, a web-based cost effective way to send remittance as part of Entrepreneurship & Innovation of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

– Founded and directed with a vision to valorize locally relevant content in Amharic (Ethiopian language) and promote ICT4D. Launched in the early years of the World Wide Web (1995), the impactful community portal won the first prize of the African Information Society Initiative in 2005 and was quoted among ICT success stories in Africa at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)​.

Since May 2006, the most popular Ethiopian web sites (including CyberEthiopia) and several blogs have been blocked across the nation. The apparent objective was to prevent the dissemination of information that is critical of the regime. Following the political protests which have swept the nation since November 2015, the then regime in Ethiopia had routinely shutdown the Internet, restricted access to Social Media and indicated its keenness to control Social Media.

On 22nd June 2018, the new Prime Minister Dr Abye Ahmed, hailed as the ‘Gorbachev of Ethiopia’, announced that his government has unblocked 264 websites including after 12 years of blockage .This was attested by the OONI’s thorough verifications of our website’s unblocking and reflected in Freedom on the Net 2019 where Ethiopia recorded the largest gains following the loosened restrictions by the New Prime Minister.