How the Supreme People’s Court serves major government strategies

serve the people

serve the people

In the past year, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has issued several policy documents that contain the same phrase: serve the nation’s major strategy (服务国家重大战略).  When SPC President Zhou Qiang gave his report to the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, 2016, one section addressed this topic.

Provided service for the country’s major strategies.  Issued opinions on the people’s courts providing judicial service and protection for the construction of One Belt, One Road, the development of coordinated development of Beijing-Tianjin, and Hebei, and the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, appropriately tried related cases, promoted the coordinated development of geographic areas.

(服务国家重大战略实施。制定人民法院为“一带一路”建设、为京津冀协同发展、为长江经济带发展提供司法服务和保障的意见,妥善审理相关案件,推动区域协调发展)

What, if anything, does serving the country’s major strategies mean for the Chinese courts?  This blogpost briefly looks at one of the policy documents cited by President Zhou Qiang to find out.

What are the documents?

The titles of these three are similar:

  1. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for One Belt One Road (OBOR Opinion)最高人民法院关于人民法院为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的若干意见;
  2. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for the Development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt (最高人民法院关于为长江经济带发展提供司法服务和保障的意见)(8 March 2016 )(Yangtze River Opinion); and
  3. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for the Coordinated Development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region 最高人民法院关于为京津冀协同发展提供司法服务和保障的意见 (18 February 2016)(Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion) .

What are the country’s major strategies?

A Rand Corporation report set out a definition of the fundamental purposes of China’s national strategy:

the fundamental purposes of China’s national strategy (guojia zhanlue) (1) to safeguard China’s national territory and sovereignty, (2) to guide national construction and social development, (3) to strengthen national power, and (4) to ensure continued national prosperity….China’s national strategic objectives (guojia zhanlue mubiao) constitute those fundamental strategic principles, concepts, and priorities guiding not only foreign and defense policy but also critical domestic realms concerned with national construction and internal order. These objectives include the attainment of great power status in the economic, technological, social, and military realms…, and the development or maintenance of capabilities to defend against any internal or external threats to China’s political stability, social order, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion

It was drafted to support the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei regional integration plan because the economic integration plan will “inevitably produce a large number of legal disputes, particularly trans-regional legal disputes.” The SPC research office seems to have taken the lead on drafting it, because its head appeared at the press conference to explain it.

The Opinion stresses the following types of cases, in the following order:

  • Criminal law: punish crimes that may effect social stability and regional integration: intellectual property rights infringement; embezzling corporate funds, illegal fund raising;  market manipulation etc. (the priority crimes);
  • Commercial law: priority cases include those involving company relocation; regional logistics centers; relocation of regional markets, including leases, labor disputes; reorganization or bankruptcy of companies with outdated technology; construction of industrial parks and promotion of companies with high quality technology;
  •  Cases involving people’s livelihood, particularly those involving public services, education, medical and health; social protections; promoting entrepreneurship, equal education, etc.
  • Cases involving financial innovation and safety: those include private lending, internet financing, protecting the rights and interests of creditors and financial consumers;
  • Expanding the protection of intellectual property:
  • Environmental cases: focus on environmental civil/commercial and administrative cases;
  • Focus on administrative cases related to regional development; and
  • Focus on major projects and construction projects related to regional integration.

The Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion also establishes greater coordination among the three courts, including a mechanism chaired by the SPC, exchange of judges, and calls for work on centralization of certain types of cases in certain court.

The Opinion calls for the lower courts to focus on the overall regional integration plan and promote the use of “diversified dispute resolution,” and pre-filing mediation, especially in policy-oriented, sensitive cases, where the local Party Committee, government, and other departments must be relied upon to resolve the issues.  ( 特别是对于政策性、敏感性强的案件,要紧紧依靠当地党委、政府及有关部门依法解决).

(The phrase “policy-oriented, sensitive case” was helpfully described by another judge as it is a concept used often within the Chinese judiciary.  Although it is a not a formal legal term, it refers to the following categories of cases: those that affect a larger group of people than the parties involved; involve issues of widespread concern; require the adjustment of certain long-term government policies; and have political implications. Those include cases involving a large number of people, special groups (such as migrant workers, well-known enterprises, offshore entities), ones that can cause social conflict, including bankruptcy, labor disputes caused by restructuring, employee relocation compensation cases, land acquisition and resettlement compensation. Cases involving political, ethnic and religious issues are also included.)

Policy documents serving major government strategies

As a central government institution, the Court must do its part to support national major strategies. To inform the lower courts of the priority issues, projects, and matters, the SPC issues policy documents, which are the court system’s version of policy documents issued by other Party and state organs. Each of the three national major strategies raises a set of legal issues.  Some of those legal issues are relevant to the function of the courts in hearing cases, while others relate to the function of the SPC as a “quasi-legislator,” as when it issues judicial interpretations.  They often relate to forthcoming initiatives or sometimes long-term issues for the SPC, as in the case of the OBOR Opinion.  However, these documents also signal that some issues, projects, and matters are more important than others, and ultimately does not contribute to public trust in the judiciary.

Some thanks in order

My thanks to a Hong Kong solicitor for criticizing the Hong Kong courts for lacking the “spirit of service” during a recent symposium on the mainland (bringing this issue to my attention) and a (mainland) academic for expressing to me his doubts that the SPC’s OBOR Document had any significance whatsoever.

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