Coronavirus: China’s legal system ‘will be more lenient’ on private sector

Jun Mai

China’s judiciary has assured the country’s business sector that courts will be more reluctant to interrupt their operations while the economy weathers the impact from the coronavirus outbreak.

“If the law allows more lenient measures, [we] should try not to use forceful measures that would limit their personal freedom and property rights,” Zhang Shuyuan, vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court, said during a Wednesday press conference in Beijing.

Businesses in China’s vibrant private sector have long complained about discriminatory measures they face compared with the state sector, including greater difficulty in borrowing from banks and bidding for projects, and little protection of their rights when they are investigated by the country’s law enforcement.

The remarks came with Beijing struggling to keep the growth of the world’s second largest economy on track while containing one of its worst public health crises of modern times.

An economy already growing at record low levels before the outbreak has been significantly disrupted by containment measures including mandatory quarantine for workers and sometimes entire villages, partial shutdowns of factories and transport restrictions.

Zhang said courts of all levels should be cautious about placing business owners in custody when they are on trial.

In cases in which assets needed to be frozen or confiscated, enough liquidity should be left for businesses to maintain basic operations, he said.

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Zhang was joined by a handful of other senior Chinese law enforcement officials, who also promised a “better legal environment” for businesses to restore operations during and after the epidemic.

Although the number of infections has begun to grow rapidly abroad, especially in Italy and South Korea, China’s provincial governments are reporting fewer new cases, and some have shifted their focus to restarting economic growth to avoid widespread lay-offs and bankruptcies.

On Sunday, President Xi Jinping told officials that the priority for most of the country outside the outbreak’s epicentre of Hubei province, in central China, was to get the economy up and running again, after the extensive delay since the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January was extended to help reduce the spread of coronavirus infections.

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However, the central government’s joint disease prevention and control steering group said in a notice issued on Wednesday that an unspecified number of case clusters had been discovered as offices and factories began to resume their operations. The notice urged local officials to stay vigilant and identify any cluster early.

By Wednesday, the coronavirus had sickened more than 81,000 people worldwide and claimed more than 2,700 lives.

Also in Wednesday’s press briefing, another senior Chinese official gave an update about the spate of coronavirus outbreaks in the country’s prisons, which were outside the public health surveillance system until last week. There have been no regular updates on infections in prisons, which are not included in the numbers reported daily by provincial health authorities.

A total of 555 confirmed cases have been found in five prisons, in Hubei and the eastern Zhejiang and Shandong provinces, justice vice-minister Xiong Xuanguo said, without offering a breakdown of the figure. He said no deaths had been reported in prisons.

Prisons must learn from virus outbreak, China’s top legal official says

Infections in the prisons were reported only last week, raising concerns about inmates’ health in the country’s densely populated jails.

Xiong said that in most cases, infections were being caused by guards who had intentionally failed to disclose their recent contact with people who had been to Hubei.

A women’s prison in Wuhan where there were infections is only 100 metres from a respiratory hospital served by the same bus stop, he said, speculating that transmission could have occurred during guards’ commute to work.

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