Pentatonic themes from the Supreme People’s Court

Pentatonic themes emanate from five articles on the national court website (www.chinacourt.org), which is managed by the Supreme People’s Court (the Court).  Although these themes appear dissonant, they reflect where the Court is now and where it may be headed. The five articles (or interfaces) relate to the

  • Mass line education and practice campaign;
  • Defense of the new joint interpretation on Internet defamation;
  • Interview with Court President  Zhou Qiang ;
  • Judicial reform: should the judicial committee be abolished; and
  • The Enterprise Bankruptcy Law Interpretation (II).

The first two articles are the most political and the last is most technical.  The middle one is the most significant, although it inevitably requires some decoding, and the fourth is related to the third.

1.  The mass line education and practice campaign

The national court website includes a banner that links to further information about the mass line education and practice campaign.  There is likely an internal Party Propaganda department directive directing that this be done.  The Supreme People’s Procuratorate website has a similar banner, as do the websites of the lower court websites. Communist Party (Party) leadership of the courts means that the mass line education and practice campaign must be featured and implemented in the courts.  This section features articles on themes in the campaign stressed by the Party as well as action by the Court.

 2. Justifying the joint interpretation criminalizing the posting of internet rumors

Several articles on the national court website relate to the joint interpretation criminalizing the posting on the internet of false rumors.  Many others have examined the joint interpretation, the comments by a “responsible person,” and the related Party documents that preceded (and directed) its issuance, so I will not re-hash those issues. The articles on the national court website justify the joint interpretation (and could not do otherwise), including one stating that “freedom of speech” and criminal punishment of false rumors is not contradictory.  It would appear (from the posting of the comments of the responsible person on the judicial interpretation on the website of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate) that the Supreme People’s Court did not take the lead in drafting this interpretation that has drawn derisive comments from the legal community within China.

3.  Court reform under Party leadership: Interview with Court President Zhou Qiang published in Seeking Facts

This article, which links to an interview with Court President Zhou Qiang in the magazine Seeking Facts (the journal of the Central Committee of the Communist Party) is important because he identifies (within the constraints of his role and the audience that he is addressing) the major issues facing the court system and his vision of the development of courts, linking it, (as he must), to the Party line as set out by General Secretary Xi Jinping, including the mass line education and practice campaign.  He uses as his anchor the statement that Xi Jinping made earlier this year:

“In every single legal case in China, we should work hard to ensure that the mass of the public feel they have received fair justice.”

Among the issues that he raises in the interview, Zhou Qiang identifies the new challenges facing the courts—as he sees it, the demands of the people on the courts are continuously increasing, while the relatively retarded capabilities of the courts are unchanged, manifesting themselves in the following types of cases:

  • eminent domain,
  • environmental and
  • internet cases.

He said these types are cases that are particularly difficult to resolve, and the new media environment means that any case at any stage can become high profile—imposing particular pressure on the courts. He touches on a number of issues that relate to public perception of the courts:

  • Obstacles to litigation, such as court refusal to accept cases;
  • Legal aid for the poor;
  • Interference into court operations;
  • Localism and bureaucratic nature; and
  • Wrongful convictions.

On the latter point he says that the criminal justice system should work together to avoid them, and the victims should be compensated and those responsible punished. In a related development, the Party Central Political Legal Committee has issued guidelines on dealing with those cases, although the full text of those guidelines does not seem to have been released.

Zhou Qiang is (inevitably) less specific in suggesting specific solutions to the issues that he has raised.

4.  Judicial reform: should the judicial committee be abolished?

Related to the judicial reform issues discussed by Court president Zhou Qiang, an article on the national court website raises the issue of the role of judicial committees in the Chinese courts  (). This brief article further links to a website with a project jointly sponsored by the national court website and Qinghua University—designed to rekindle discussions on what should become of the judicial committee (see my 2010 article on judicial committees–Article on judicial committees).  Throughout the history of the PRC, court legislation has stated that judicial committees “practice democratic centralism” and that their task is to “sum up judicial experience and to discuss important or difficult cases or other issues relating to judicial work.”  Judicial committees operate according to Communist Party principles of leadership to decide cases that are too difficult or important for an individual judge or judicial panel to decide, to ensure the optimal substantive result (as seen from the institutional perspective of the courts.

The pluses and minuses of judicial committees have been debated within China and abroad for 20 or more years.

5.  Judicial Interpretation of the Bankruptcy Law (II)

This article is included because it relates to the ongoing technical role of the Court.  A second long judicial opinion (but shorter than the first) has been under consideration for some time, and according to reports a third judicial opinion is being drafted.  The Court has wisely included practicing lawyers as well as liquidators in discussions on the future draft.  A draft version of this second interpretation was released in 2012 for discussion by some lower courts as well as specialists.  Comments by the drafters to the press on the interpretation can be found here.

6.  Conclusions?

As to the pentatonic themes:

  • The courts are under the leadership of the Party and must act in accordance with its policy line;
  • The Chinese courts are facing ever more complicated social issues, requiring greater professional (and political) competence;
  • The Chinese courts are facing ever more complicated commercial issues, requiring a greater level of technical competence;
  • Court leadership is exploring more sensitive court reform issues (at a theoretical level);
  • Court leadership is taking concrete steps concerning less controversial reform issues that will benefit “the masses”, such as legal aid to the poor.
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