The Chinese parliament is debating a landmark piece of legislation, a revised criminal law, that is being hailed by the state for limiting police powers but which is facing criticism from human rights and political activists for not going far enough.
"We've seen over the last five years the ascendancy of the security agencies in China. The government sees the country as this pressure cooker ...."
- Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch
So, is the amended Criminal Procedure Law presented to the annual session of the National People's Congress an attempt at self-redemption or merely a bid to evade criticism? And does it mean that China is finally opening up?
The law grants suspects immediate access to a lawyer and, for the first time, makes clear that "confessions extorted through illegal means, such as torture, and testimony of witnesses and depositions of victims obtained illegally, such as by violence of threats, should in future be excluded during the trials".
Lang Sheng from China's Legislative Affairs Commission says: "According to the new law, family members of those arrested or held should be informed within 24 hours."
But, the revision that has drawn most discussion is that which will, at least on paper, restrict police powers to secretly detain people - a tactic which human rights campaigners say is increasingly used against activists and critics of the government.
Chinese authorities have been accused of using the tactic of extra-illegally 'disappearing' people for months at a time, detaining them in so-called 'black jails' - ad-hoc holding facilities that allow authorities to bypass the law.
"China is at a crossroads based on the number of civil unrests that is rising rapidly, estimated at 128,000 last year, and this threatens the stability of China's governance. … Also with the organised civic action not only in China but across the world, the Chinese leadership is very much alive to this threat."
- Andrew Leung, a political analyst
Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan says that the new criminal code is supposed to prevent the use of 'black jails' "but the showpiece legislation will only matter if it is actually enforced".
And it is the implementation of these revisions that most concerns critics, who say the law continues to give unfettered powers to the police to detain those suspected of what the state calls "endangering national security".
A report by the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders described 2011 as the most repressive year in over a decade for those defending human rights in China, with harsh crackdowns characterised by lengthy prison sentences, extensive use of illegal detention and enforced disappearances and torture.
According to the report, there were 4,000 cases of individuals being arbitrarily detained for their work in defence of human rights in 2011 - with the vast majority of these being held in 'black jails' or placed under house arrest.
So, what has prompted the introduction of these new procedures and will they actually be implemented?
Joining Inside Story with presenter Stephen Cole to discuss this are: Andrew Leung, a political analyst and the former Hong Kong government representative to the UK; Francois Godement, a political science professor and the director for strategy at the Asia Centre; and Phelim Kine, a senior researcher for Asia with the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"China has accepted forms of dialogue. The theme appears clearly in the drafting of this criminal law. It is a very contradictory situation. The leadership does not equate due process with the separation of powers, so we have a paradox of a system that is trying to regulate its own excesses but does not provide for an independent judiciary."
Francois Godement, a political science professor
UPDATE ON CHINA'S CRIMINAL PROCEDURE LAW:
- China's legislature has approved the revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law, with 2,639 delegates voting for the bill and 160 against
- The bill will go into effect on January 1, 2013
- Zhang Jianxin, a Zhejiang provincial delegate, said the new law was more reflective of society: "These amendments relate better to our Chinese actuality"
- Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan said: "It is an overhaul of China's Criminal Procedure Law after 15 or 16 years of no changes, so it is going to be quite a major thing"