Chinese courts & “foreign beneficial experience”

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US 7th Circuit Judge Posner speaking by videolink at National Judicial College (NJC) in 2016

Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang has been widely quoted for saying in January of this year that Chinese courts should strengthen ideological work and show the sword to mistaken Western ideas of “constitutional democracy”, “separation of powers” and “judicial independence.” What is not widely known outside China is that the relationship between the Chinese judiciary and some of the major international judiciaries (I’ll use the term “Western”) is more nuanced than it appears.  Close observation reveals the following:

  • high-level summits between major foreign and Chinese judiciaries;
  • senior Western judges speaking to or providing training to senior Chinese judges;
  • pilot projects in the Chinese courts involving foreign judiciaries;
  • SPC journals and media outlets publishing the translation of cases from and reports of major Western judiciaries; and
  • SPC judges reviewing legislation, institutions, and concepts from other judiciaries in judicial reform.

The official position on borrowing/referring to foreign legal models is set out in the 4th Plenum Decision (as I wrote earlier):

Draw from the quintessence of Chinese legal culture, learn from beneficial experiences in rule of law abroad, but we can absolutely not indiscriminately copy foreign rule of law concepts and models.

President Xi Jinping further elaborated this view on his visit to China University of Political Science and Law on May 3:

China shall actively absorb and refer to successful legal practices worldwide, but they must be filtered, they must be selectively absorbed and transformed, they may not be swallowed whole and copied (对世界上的优秀法治文明成果,要积极吸收借鉴,也要加以甄别,有选择地吸收和转化,不能囫囵吞枣、照搬照抄).

[The Xinhua report on Xi’s visit in English–“China should take successful legal practices worldwide as reference, but not simply copy them” omits the detail found in the Chinese reports.

Some examples of the way  the SPC considers the “beneficial legal experiences in the rule of law abroad”:

  1. High level summits (some of which were agreed to on a presidential/head of state level) on commercial legal issues, such as the August, 2016 U.S.-China (or China-U.S.) Judicial Summit
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August, 2016 US-China Judicial Dialogue, then Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General William Baer in foreground

“Our three talented and experienced U.S. judges discussed with senior Chinese judges and other experts topics relevant to commercial cases, ranging from case management to evidence, expert witnesses, amicus briefs, the use of precedents and China’s system of “guiding cases.” Speakers from both sides gave presentations that explored complex questions on technical areas of law. The conversations, during the formal meetings and tea breaks, were lively, candid, direct and constructive, highlighting both the similarities in and important differences between the U.S. and Chinese legal and judicial systems. I told our Chinese hosts that the views our judges expressed would be entirely their own, reflecting our separation of powers and the independence of our judiciary. Our judges displayed that independence as they weighed in on a range of issues, such as the role of precedents in interpreting statutes and the challenge of balancing public access to information while safeguarding privacy and protecting trade secrets.

Several of the Chinese participants discussed pending cases in U.S. courts involving Chinese defendants. I [William Baer] believe it was useful for us to air our differences and for our experts to exchange views on technical and sensitive areas of law. At the meeting, it was clear that although we come from different backgrounds and will not always agree, we all recognize the importance of legal reasoning and that increased transparency is a way of earning the public’s trust in the fairness and objectivity of the judicial system.”(from the DOJ website).

2.  Training of Chinese judges by foreign judges

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Dr. Matthias Keller, presiding judge, Aachen administrative court, teaching at NJC, March, 2017

A number of foreign judiciaries have in place long-term training programs with the Chinese judiciary, with the German judiciary among the pioneers.  The National Judicial College (NJC) (affiliated with the SPC) has a long-term program in place with the Germany judiciary, involving the German Judicial Academy, the German Federal Ministry of Justice & Consumer Protection, GIZ (the German international cooperation organization) and other parties, which teaches subsumption and related techniques of applying laws to facts (further explained here).  The NJC has published a set of textbooks that apply the subsumption method to Chinese law.

It is likely that close to 10,000 Chinese judges have been trained under the German program. Common sense indicates that the NJC has continued with the program because it is useful to Chinese judges.

A recent example of  the German training program is illustrated by the photo above, showing Dr. Matthias Keller, presiding judge of the Aachen administrative court giving a training course on the methodology of the application of law in administrative law to 150 Chinese administrative judges, mostly from intermediate and higher people’s courts.

3. Pilot projects in the Chinese courts involving foreign judiciaries

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Australian judges have worked with the Australian Human Rights Commission on a ‘Sino-Australia Anti-Domestic Violence Multi-Agency Putian Pilot Program’ in Putian, Fujian Province, involving judges from the SPC, Fujian Higher People’s Court, and Putian Intermediate Court.

4.  Publishing the translation of cases and reports from foreign judiciaries.

Some examples in recent months include:

  •  excerpts from Supreme Court decision Padilla v. Kentucky (published 7 February 2017), for those unfamiliar, it relates to plea bargaining and effective counsel);
  • U.S. Chief Justice Robert’s 2016 year end report on the federal judiciary;
  • U.S. federal judiciary’s strategic plan, for their takeaways for a Chinese audience;
  • Summary of a July, 2016 report on cameras in the federal courts;
  • Summary of the UK’s 2015 Civil Justice Council’s Online Dispute Resolution Advisory Group’s report on Online Dispute Resolution for Low Value Civil Claims.

5. Considering foreign legal concepts in judicial reform

Foreign legal concepts are considered by the SPC in a broad range of areas of legal reform, most of them unknown to foreign observers.  Several of the more well known examples include: plea bargaining  (see this article by an SPC judge (a comparison with the US “model” is included in Jeremy Daum’s  analysis of China’s expedited criminal procedure reform).  Last year’s policy document on diversified dispute resolution (previous blogpost here) specifically mentions considering concepts from abroad,On the ongoing amendments to the Judges’ Law (the draft has not yet been released), SPC Vice President Shen Deyong said in late April, “we need to learn from and refer to the successful practices of the management system of the judicial team by jurisdictions abroad, but they must be selectively filtered for Chinese use (要学习借鉴域外法官队伍管理的制度成果,甄别吸收,为我所用)。

Comment

A careful review of official statements, publications, and actions by the SPC and its affiliated institutions, as well as research by individual SPC judges shows an intense interest in how the rest of the world deals with some of the challenges facing the Chinese judiciary coupled with a recognition that any possible foreign model or provision will need to fit the political, cultural, economic, and institutional reality of China, and that certain poisonous ideas must not be transplanted.  [Those particularly interested could pore through two publications of the SPC judicial reform office (Guide to the Opinions on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms of People’s Courts and the Guide to the Opinions on Judicial Accountability System of People’s Courts, in which the authors discuss relevant provisions in principal jurisdictions abroad.]

Those who either are most concerned about diluting the Chinese essence of the SPC (or jealous/emotionally bruised) seem to have saved their most poisonous criticism for off-line comments, as I am unable to locate a written version of the nasty comments that a senior Chinese academic shared with me about the over-Westernization of judicial reform or other nasty comments said to have been made about research by certain SPC judges into foreign legal systems.  It is hard to know whether the persons involved are motivated by jealousy or a real belief that these measures described above will have a negative effect on the development of the Chinese judiciary.  It seems safe to say that the concerns raised in the 19th century on the dilution of the essence of Chinese culture when borrowing from the West seem to be alive and well in the 21st century.

 

English language websites of Chinese courts

The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and other Chinese courts have established or upgraded their English language websites to promote better the image of the Chinese courts to the outside world.  These websites are linked to policy goals set by the 4th Plenum, 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan, and other related documents. That can be seen from an announcement on the English language version of the Shanghai Maritime Court’s website:

Shanghai Maritime Court established a judicial translator team, aiming at having a bigger say in global judicial disputes and fostering judicial talents with a global vision.

“Establishing a professional translator team for maritime judiciary centers is a goal for building a global maritime judicial center,” said Zhao Hong, president of the Shanghai Maritime Court.

“It is aiming to serve a maritime powerhouse and laying a solid foundation for China’s Belt and Road initiative,” Zhao said.

A quick rating of the soft power of these English language websites follows below.

SPC English website

  1. SPC’s English website: http://www.english.court.gov.cn

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The SPC English website, while an improvement over the previous version, could be substantially improved.

Too much of the information is out of date, including much of the information on the landing page of the website. The “About” section, which could be useful to foreign courts, diplomats, journalists, researchers, students, etc. has an outdated description of the SPC leadership.  In the section on Resources, the SPC white papers are published as separate pages, rather than as one downloadable PDF (as some of the Chinese maritime courts have done). The scheduled hearings section is generally out of date and also provides no information as to how an interested person would attend a hearing. The link to issues of the SPC Gazette only contains the first two pages, rather than the full issue itself.  Moreover, the landing page lacks links to other English language court websites.

National Maritime Court site

China Maritime Trial: http://enccmt.court.gov.cn/chinamaritimetrial/index.html, the English language version of the national maritime court website (partial screenshot below), apparent partner to the Foreign Related Commercial website (similar look and feel) seems to be in beta mode.Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 2.03.12 PM

Again, as with the national court website, the news on most of the landing page appears to be outdated.  The white paper page does not enable the user to download a PDF version of the report providing an overview of the first 30 years of the maritime courts.  Under the resources tab, under law & regs, are links to translations of SPC judicial interpretations relating to the maritime courts, but it is not apparent to anyone looking at the landing page. These translations are potentially a useful resource to all sorts of foreign readers. Under the resources tab, the cases menu is empty. The judgement tab links to translations of some judgments and rulings by the SPC and maritime courts, but without any headings or indications on the front page of the website.  These translations, too, are potentially a useful resource to foreign users. It does have links to the other maritime courts (some of which have English websites, but some of the links are out of date.

National Foreign-Related Commercial Cases Website

China Foreign Related Commercial Trial: http://enccmt.court.gov.cn/ChinaForeignRelatedCommercialTrial/index.html , the English language version of the national foreign-related commercial cases court website (partial screenshot below),apparent partner to the Maritime Courts website (similar look and feel) seems to be in beta mode.china foreign related trial

Again, as with the national court website, the news on most of the landing page appears to be outdated. Under the About tab is a list of courts that can accept foreign-related cases, but information about the jurisdiction of each court is missing. Under the Media Center, most of the information under Updates is irrelevant to the courts, the information under International Exchanges is missing, but the Specials has a translation of the SPC’s Belt & Road policy document (although followed by descriptions of the SPC’s cooperation with several Shanghai-area law schools).  There is no content under the Resources tab or the Judgement tab.  Translations of judicial interpretations related to foreign-related civil and commercial issues and a clearer explanation of how a foreign-related case progresses in China would be useful for the casual foreign user, including those from the Belt & Road countries.

Local court websites

Relatively few Chinese courts seem to have English language websites, but the Shanghai high court (http://www.hshfy.sh.cn/shfy/English/index.jsp) has one of them.Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 3.24.23 PM

The Shanghai Higher People’s Court website is well organized, and relatively timely, although the litigation guide has little information to guide the foreign litigant, and too much of the information, whether cases or news, is badly edited.  The information on jurisdiction is not very helpful for a litigant or counsel, because it does not convey information on the jurisdiction of the Shanghai courts.  It appears that translators lacked understanding of who the potential users of the site were, and had English language challenges, unlike the Shanghai maritime court (see more below).

Local Maritime court websites

Several maritime courts have English language websites, with Guangzhou and Shanghai taking the lead in presenting useful and clear information to the foreign user.  The Shanghai maritime court website (http://shhsfy.gov.cn/hsfyywwx/hsfyywwx/index.html) does a good job of presenting official information clearly and in a timely manner. Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 2.51.58 PM.pngThe Shanghai maritime court’s bilingual white paper for 2014 and 2015 is downloadable in PDF (under the Annual Report tab), the Court News is relatively timely,  The case digests are useful and calendar lists upcoming court hearings (however without information concerning how an interested person could attend them). Unusually for a Chinese court website, the Judges tab has photos of judges other than the senior leadership.  The Contact Us tab (unusual for a Chinese court) has only telephone numbers for the court and affiliated tribunals, rather than an email (or Wechat account).  Of course the information on the Chinese side of the website is more detailed (under the white paper tab, for example, a detailed analysis of annual judicial statistics can be found), and the laws & regulations tab might usefully set out maritime-related judicial interpretations, but most of the information is well organized and relevant.  Similar comments can be made about the Guangzhou maritime court’s website (http://english.gzhsfy.gov.cn/index.php).

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Comment

It appears that Judge Zhao Hong, president of the Shanghai Maritime Court (and former SPC #4 Civil Division judge) and her Guangzhou counterpart, Judge Ye Liudong, have a greater sense of what the world outside of China is interested to know about the Chinese courts than many other Chinese senior court judges. The team of judges (and other judicial personnel)  under her watchful eye does a good job of keeping the website current and useful.

Most of the court English language websites should be rated “room to improve,”  as they fail to convey useful and timely information to foreign users.Those running the website do not seem to have a sense of what the foreign audience wants to know. That could be solved in a couple of ways: looking at some foreign court websites, consulting with a web-development company focusing on the foreign market, or recruiting some foreign lawyers or law students to be a website focus group.

The websites need to convey to a foreign audience a range of useful information worded in accessible language if they are to accomplish their goal of promoting the image of the Chinese courts.  One useful piece of information that should be on a Chinese court website is a clear illustration of the steps in a civil or commercial case), aimed at individual or small business litigants.  How foreigners can use the Chinese courts to protect their rights, be they related to a contract, property, or employment relationship, is a practical issue both to the hundreds of thousands of foreign residents in China as well as those foreigners with cross-border disputes with a Chinese party.