The Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s 2015 work report has many takeaways for different audiences. The apparently formulaic report took five months to draft, involving comments and input by many within and outside of the SPC (this article describes the process, as did my earlier blogpost), most likely involving clearance by the Central Leading Group on Judicial Reform. It was drafted to show certain accomplishments, send certain signals–show that judicial reform is on the right path and is successful, particularly that the court leadership and the courts are doing their part to fulfil the tasks set for them by the Party/state leadership. This year’s report has three sections, rather than the usual two, with one section summarizing judicial reform accomplishments. This post will focus on highlights of the overview of 2015, and leave judicial reforms and tasks for this year for another day.
In a sign that the diminished attention spans have come to China, the SPC has come up with graphic and even musical versions of the report.
Statistics to convey current message
This short book, explaining how statistics are used to convey certain messages, was originally published in the 1950’s and translated into Chinese about 10 years ago (and given to me when I was 11 by my parents). It is a useful reference when puzzling out what SPC court statistics are saying and mean, because as this Wall Street Journal article noted, the categories used in the annual reports often shift from year to year, making comparisons difficult, and breakdowns of specific categories are generally missing. The reason for that is the report (including the statistics) are meant to harmonize with the latest government/Party policies and be on message. The SPC is reforming judicial statistics and seeking to make better use of big data, but the fine details are not in this report.
Takeaway #1–Caseload Up Significantly
The caseload of all levels of courts were up significantly, primarily because of the docketing reforms implemented last year (mentioned here). Civil (family, inheritance, private lending) and commercial cases account for most of the growth.
Cases heard at the Supreme People’s Court were up 42.6% compared with 2014 (accepted 15985, concluded 14,135). with most of those heard at headquarters in Beijing rather than the two circuit courts. The local people’s courts heard 19,511,000, and concluded 16.714 million cases, with large increases in the amounts in dispute, an increase of 24.7%, 21.1% and 54.5%, respectively. This seems to exclude cases heard in the military courts.
Performance target reforms mean that judges are no longer under enormous pressure to conclude cases by year end (although some local court officials may not been on message).
Criminal and Commercial cases up–Takeaway #2
Just briefly on the criminal cases, as the overview graphic of commercial cases is linked to criminal cases-criminal cases are up by 7.5%. Significantly, criminal cases involving refusal to pay wages were up 58%, with last year’s report revealing that 753 persons were convicted, which means that 2015 convictions were close to 1200. a\Analysis of the statistic of 1419 persons convicted of state security and terrorist crimes can be found here.
Commercial cases were up 20% (3,347,000, with 120,000 intellectual property cases (up from 110,000 in 2014). This is likely linked to the new intellectual property courts, but I will cede further analysis on this to my fellow blogger Mark Cohen of Chinaipr.com. Again, tiny numbers of foreign-related (6079), but up from last year (5804) and Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan-related cases. Cases involving subsidiaries of foreign companies are not in this category–this is a commercial case with a foreign party. The maritime courts heard 16,000 cases, the large increase apparently also attributable to the case registration system. The language in the speech (making headlines) about making China an international maritime judicial center reflects language in previous speeches Zhou Qiang gave in China (analyzed here), but unnoticed until the NPC report.
Private lending disputes up significantly
The courts heard 1,420,000 private lending disputes, up from 1,045,600 in 2014. Further background on private lending disputes can be found in my previous articles for the Diplomat. Last year the private lending disputes were categorized with the civil cases, rather than commercial cases.
SPC doing its part for greater government policy
The SPC issued policy documents on One Belt One Road (see this analysis of its implications), the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei area, and Yangtze River Economic Belt to implement government policies. Those strategic projects are priorities for government.
Takeaway #3 Commercial disputes
In 2015, 1,053,000 financial disputes were heard and 100,000 insurance disputes, as well as 4238 securities fraud and insider trading cases, compared with 824,000 financial disputes in 2014, a number which included insurance cases. This speaks to the weakness in the Chinese economy.
The bar chart to the left illustrates percentage increases in product liability (in 2014 there was also a large increase), reputation, real estate development (see this blogpost), loans, sales contracts, labor (up 21%!), and rural residential land disputes. The report flags 1400 bankruptcy cases and highlights pilot projects.
In another indication of problems with the real estate sector, Zhou Qiang mentioned “mass real estate disputes” and the expert handling by the Jinan court (in coordination with the government) of a large villa project in Jinan that encountered financial difficulties in 2008 (see this description) and led 2000 purchasers to petition in Beijing and even surround the Jinan Party Committee, Shandong Party Committee, and the Central Inspection Group that was on site. In 2014, the Shandong government decided to use “legal thinking” to involve the Jinan intermediate court.
An area for commercial lawyers to monitor is unfair competition and anti-monopoly, where the regulators are working on a stream of regulations. Last year the Chinese courts heard 1802 cases.
Takeaway #4– Big jump in civil disputes
The pie chart on left shows the distribution of first instance civil cases–26% family (1,733,000), 1.5% inheritance, 5% ownership disputes, 17% personal rights （privacy, portrait, reputation), 22.8% private lending, 7.32% labor disputes, including 300,000 migrant worker wage arrears (and other cases related to rural residents rights (拖欠农民工工资等涉农案件 30 万件). Consumer, education, housing and employment accounted for 720,000 cases.
For environmental cases, 78,000 civil cases were concluded, along with 19,000 criminal cases.
Takeaway #5 Big jump in administrative cases
The amendment of the Administrative Litigation Law last year, the docketing reforms, and the decision to push disputes off the streets and into the courtroom has been a large increase in administrative disputes, although the baseline was very low. In 2015, 241,000 first instance administrative cases were accepted, up 59% from the year before, with 199,000 concluded. Reforms have been undertaken to move administrative cases outside of the area in which they arise, which is another reason that some persons or entities have been willing to file. The bar chart has the percentage increase in different types of administrative cases, with an 176% increase in education cases. The remaining categories (from the left are: public security, trademark, pharmaceutical, construction, transportation, energy, and the environment.
(Black & white charts from SPC work report, thanks to Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal).