Why the Supreme People’s Court is lobbying National People’s Congress Delegates?

Deputy court president in Ningbo, December, 2011

Deputy Court president in Ningbo, December, 2011

Since the end of Third Plenum in November, senior Supreme People’s Court (Court) officials have been racking up airmiles, traveling all over China to meet with National People’s Congress (NPC) and  Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) representatives.  Over forty meetings have been held over the past year. Although Court officials had met with NPC and CPPCC delegates in previous years, it is apparent that these meetings are taking on special significance this year. This blogpost will explain what occurs at these meetings and the rationale for having them.  It also illustrates one of the skills that an effective court president needs in China.

In recent months, senior Court officials, primarily the Court vice presidents, have traveled to the four corners of China, from Gansu to Guangxi and from Jilin to Yunnan. Zhou Qiang has also met with Beijing based delegates.

The stated purpose of these meetings is to “listen” (听取) (and respond) to the views and suggestions of NPC and CCPCC delegates. Court officials have either released to NPC and CPCC delegates a copy of the Court draft work report or summarized the developments in the courts in 2013 and plans for 2014.  Some meetings apparently involved more substance than others.  The meeting with Shanghai delegates, which included a leading law firm partner as well as the general manager of Shanghai Electric (listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange) raised the issues of:

  • quality of judicial personnel;
  • increasing judicial independence;
  • resolving local protectionism;
  • having more witnesses appear in court; and
  • cross-examination.

It is apparent from the extensive reports on these meetings that Zhou Qiang is taking a tactical approach to these meetings.  As the former governor of Hunan, former Party Secretary of Hunan and director of the Standing Committee of the Hunan People’s Congress, he has extensive experience in dealing with people’s congress and consultative congress deputies.

It appears that the rationale Zhou Qiang (and colleagues) have for these meetings is two-fold.  First, it is to diffuse criticism of the Court (and the work of the lower courts) at the upcoming NPC session and incorporate frequently issues into either the final version of the Court Work Report or the 2014 Court agenda.   The large number of votes against the 2013 Court Work Report was seen as a loss of face and it is likely that Court leadership wants to avoid that.

The second reason Zhou Qiang has for closely liaising with NPC delegates is to lay the groundwork for implementing  court reforms.  If the Court is able to obtain support for overhauling the structure for the funding of courts and appointment of judges at the local level (as foreseen by the Third Plenum Decision) this reform will require that the NPC amend the basic statute for the court system, the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts (人民法院组织法) and will  require NPC delegates support the reforms in large numbers.

Zhou Qiang listening to Hunan provincial people's congress delegates, 2011

Zhou Qiang listening to Hunan provincial people’s congress delegates, 2011

General Party Secretary Xi Jinping Issues Written Instructions (批示) to the Supreme People’s Court (Updated)

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On the eve of the Chinese New Year, a banner headline was posted on the  Supreme People’s Court (Court) websites:

Study the Important Written Instructions of  General Party Secretary Xi Jinping

A revised version of that banner has remained on those websites since (the photo above), apparently unobserved by outside commentators, who may have not realized its significance.   This blogpost will look at:

  • what written instructions (批示) are;
  • the significance of Xi Jinping giving written instructions;
  • what Xi Jinping’s instructions were;
  • why the instructions were issued on eve of the New Year; and
  • why Zhou Qiang, President of the Court called on the lower courts to study diligently Xi Jinping’s instructions.

What are written instructions (批示)?

”Written instructions“ (批示) means notes or comments made by a superior on a written document submitted for approval or comment.  It is used in reference to Party/government documents as well as documents within the court system (see the regulations on handling each type of document).  The term has been used throughout the history of the PRC as well as in Chinese history.  Analysis of Chinese political documents often mentions written instructions.

According to the reports on various Court websites and in the press, Xi Jinping gave his written instructions on 28 January in response to a report submitted by the Supreme People’s Court  entitled Situation Concerning the Work of the People’s Courts in 2013 and Proposals for their Work in 2014 (关于2013年人民法院工作情况和2014年工作打算的报告).  The report has not been made public.

What were Xi Jinping’s written instructions and what is their significance?

Xi Jinping wrote what to the outside observer appears to be a collection of slogans from the Third Plenum Decision.  However appearances can be deceiving.

He wrote that the courts had diligently implemented the Center’s policies and implemented their responsibilities and achieved new results.  He expressed his hope that the courts will make persistent efforts, implement the spirit of the 18th Party Congress, Third Plenum etc, uphold the Party’s leadership, promote judicial reform, advance the building of a judicial system that is fair, efficient, and authoritative..provide powerful judicial protection for reform, and continue to promote the building of the rule of law in China.

The significance of the written instructions is not so much in its content as the fact that Xi Jinping issued it to the Supreme People’s Court.  It is unusual for a Party General Secretary to have issued them.  By doing so, Xi Jinping expresses his support, praise, demands, and hopes for Zhou Qiang and the Court leadership.

Why were the written instructions issued on eve of the New Year?

The written instructions were issued on the eve of the Chinese New Year to approve what Zhou Qiang and the other Court leaders did in 2013, as well as confirm the planned policies of the Court for 2014.  The written instructions were issued before the Chinese New Year to enable the Court leadership to be better equipped when dealing with issues at the National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting in early March. Court leaders are likely anticipating that local opposition to judicial reforms under consideration may be expressed at the NPC meeting.

Why are the lower courts requested to study diligently Xi Jinping’s instructions?

Xi Jinping’s instructions summarize in one paragraph the Central Committee’s policy towards the courts and their role in the Third Plenum reforms as well as judicial reforms.  The written instructions enable the lower courts  to understand the political background against which they work and the political goals for their work in the near and longer term.

The more sophisticated lower court judges understand that the written instructions mean that the Party leadership values the work of the Court leadership, but recognize that this will not resolve their caseload.

Concluding Remarks

To the outside observer:

  • it illustrates what is meant by Party leadership of the courts at the highest level;
  • in the political context of China, it is a major coup for Zhou Qiang (and colleagues) and their reform policies for Xi Jinping to have issued those written instructions; and
  • It means the political leadership is behind those reforms.
  • At the same time, it places a great deal of pressure on the Court leadership to deliver results (as seen from the political leadership) in the judicial reforms.
  • It would not be surprising to hear voices opposing some of the reforms at the NPC meeting.