The language of architecture of the courts, mainland China and Hong Kong

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Supreme People’s Court building, Beijing

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#1 Circuit Court building, Shenzhen

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Jinan Intermediate Court building

I had the opportunity to visit the Supreme People’s Court #1 Circuit Court in Shenzhen recently (thank you to all involved for arranging the visit, about which I will discuss further in another post).  The visit, recent events in China and a recent article in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (by my friend and former student, Simon Ng, of the University of Hong Kong)  on the newly renovated Court of Final Appeal building in Hong Kong (over one hundred years old, and one of the first purpose-built British court buildings in Asia) got me to thinking about the language of architecture, in particular the steel gates around Chinese courts. The #1 Circuit Court, as all Chinese courts I have visited or seen, has steel gates surrounding it and police protection.

Among the reasons for the steel gates is incidents such as the one detailed in this article in the English language version of Caixin.  A factory worker in the city of Shiyan, Hubei Province attacked four judges, angry about the outcome of his case against his employer.  This case is not exceptional–in a 2010 case, reported here, three judges were killed and several others injured in Hunan province, by a man disgruntled by the property settlement in his divorce case. Professor Bi Yuqian of  the Chinese University of Political Science and Law commented on the Shiyan case: “The public authority of judges has not yet been founded in China… It is not shocking that a judge is stabbed in China.”

For that reason, the Fourth Plenum Decision sets as a goal: raise judicial credibility…strive to have the people feel fairness and justice in every judicial case.”

The architecture of modern Chinese courts borrows some elements from the traditional architecture of a yamen, while the language of the architecture of the courts of Hong Kong  is very different.yamen

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Court of Final Appeal building

Simon Ng recently published the following comments about the Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal Building, “It is an icon of Hong Kong’s judicial independence, which has been practised for over a century and is preserved under the solemn pledge of “one country, two systems”.

The blindfolded Themis standing right above the royal coat of arms is a visual reiteration of the centuries-old ideal of rule of law that even the sovereign must be subject to the law and reason. The administration of justice under the dome has to live up to that spirit.

Over the years, the architecture has helped to shape public understanding and expectations of the legal system. Fairness and impartiality, as symbolised by Themis, are the legal values that people treasure most.

With the reoccupation by the Court of Final Appeal, the building will continue to convey the meaning of rule of law across time through its language of architecture, the practice of judicial independence, and the upholding of justice and equality.”

The language of architecture conveys the status of the judiciary at this time and public expectations of the  legal system.  We can only hope that some day, the steel gates surrounding Chinese courts will be unneeded.

(©Court of Final Appeal building, SCMP; Jinan, Getty images; SPC, BBC)

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