BEIJING - The rule of law is taking centre stage for the first time at a plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) ruling elite where the party will show that no cadre, no matter how powerful, is above the law.
When the four-day closed- door session wraps up on Thursday, retired security czar Zhou Yongkang - the first member of the apex Politburo Standing Committee to be investigated - is expected to stripped of his party membership and handed over to prosecutors to face corruption and other charges.
Several of the 71-year-old's former subordinates will also be kicked out of the Central Committee, whose 205 members and 171 alternate members are attending the fourth plenum at a hotel in western Beijing.
Expectations are more mixed on the extent of legal and judicial reforms. The official Xinhua news agency will release a document on Thursday listing the key decisions taken at the plenum.
Some state media and even foreign banks are talking up potential knock-on benefits for the economy and the people from the expected reforms, which reportedly centre on giving anti-graft agencies and courts at lower levels more independence from local governments.
Ms Jian Chang, China economist at Barclays Capital in Hong Kong, believes that the changes would "help promote law and order in China and reduce administrative and local government interferences".
"These will help to improve market efficiency, as well as reduce corruption and high operating costs of doing business in China," she wrote in an investor's note yesterday.
"In turn, it will help increase investors' confidence regarding the sustainability of China's political regime and economic growth."
But the Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid linked to the Communist Party, tried to temper expectations in an editorial.
"Democracy and the rule of law cannot be fulfilled in a 'Great Leap Forward' way," it said.
"We must build them step-by- step," it added.
Some observers say there is no doubting President Xi Jinping's ability to push through difficult reforms, having consolidated his power base by carrying out a number of purges and wearing an unprecedented number of leadership hats since he took power in November 2012.
He had also proven himself at last year's third plenum, which pledged a list of 60 "reform tasks" including elevating the role of the markets from "basic" to "decisive".
Observers say the question now is just how far he will go to deepen legal and judicial reforms without hurting his rule and that of the party.
On the one hand, he needs stronger, clearer laws to compel officials, especially those at state- owned enterprises, to do as told or to execute his desired reforms.
But he also needs to retain extrajudicial practices to ensure that the anti-graft campaign remains effective.
"Xi needs to build a more stable societal order governed by clearer laws to maintain the CCP's rule," Renmin University analyst Zhang Ming told The Straits Times.
"But I don't think he has a clear road map now so we probably can expect some technical changes, but real judicial independence is impossible."
This article was first published on October 21, 2014.
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