Chief Justice John Roberts of the United States Supreme Court may be surprised to learn that a translated version of his 2017 year-end report on the federal courts was recently published by the People’s Court Daily, as it has been for the past twelve years. It was republished by Wechat and Weibo sites affiliated with the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and other prominent Wechat public accounts and legal websites. What significance does the report have?
The translators that bring the year-end reports to Chinese readers are Mr. Huang Bin (formerly of the SPC’s China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence and now of the National Judicial College, a former Yale Law School visiting scholar) and Ms. Yang Yi (China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence, a former Columbia Law School visiting scholar).
Two subjects in Justice Roberts’ 2017 report are likely to resonate with Chinese readers. The first is how the federal courts dealt with national disasters in 2017 (introductory comments in some of the Wechat versions mention that China has only scattered legislative provisions related to emergency measures for the courts). The second is sexual harassment and Justice Roberts’ request to the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to organize a working group to review the code of conduct for the federal judiciary, guidance to employees on issues of confidentiality and reporting of instances of misconduct, and rules for investigating and processing misconduct complaints.
The #Metoo movement has not yet explicitly affected the Chinese courts. However, it is likely that Chief Justice Roberts’ acknowledgment that existing rules and structures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints are inadequate that resonates with Chinese women judges and judicial support staff, who make an increasingly large percentage of the Chinese judiciary. It seems likely (confirmed by discrete inquiries) that sexual harassment occurs in Chinese courts as well.
More broadly, what relevance does Justice Robert’s report and others on the US federal and state judiciary have for the Chinese judiciary after the 19th Party Congress, when in October, 2017 Communist Party Central Committee policy on the training of judges and prosecutors lists first resolutely opposing erosion by the mistaken Western rule of law viewpoint” (坚决抵制西方错误法治观点侵蚀)? To the careful observer, the publication of these reports and other articles on specific issues in SPC publications means that the senior and lower levels of the Chinese courts have an ongoing interest in what the US federal and state courts are doing and look to commonalities and takeaways (despite the vast differences in the two systems).
Another example of the Chinese courts looking to commonalities with the US courts occurred earlier this month (January) when the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence published a Chinese summary of the National Center for State Courts’ 2017 survey on public confidence in the state courts. The article appears to be a republication of an article previously published internally and reflects the concern of the Chinese judiciary with public trust.
The takeaways, that is referring to or borrowing foreign legal concepts or models to reform China’s judicial system remains politically sensitive. In Party General Secretary and President Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress speech, he called for the continuation of judicial reform:
We will carry out comprehensive and integrated reform of the judicial system and enforce judicial accountability in all respects, so that the people can see in every judicial case that justice is served.
Earlier in 2017, when visiting the China University of Political Science and Law, Xi Jinping cautioned that Chinese legal reform does not mean wholesale adoption of foreign law and institutions:
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).
What a careful observer notices from monitoring SPC media is that those involved with reform of discrete areas of Chinese legislation and judicial practice continue (in the pre/post 19th Party Congress era) to look at US federal/state law (and other foreign law) structures and practices, including: use of mediation in federal appeals cases; bankruptcy practice; reform of Chinese nuclear safety legislation to broaden the scope of information released to the public, that is in specific areas that do not involve basic principles of the Chinese courts.