SPC President Xiao Yang & internationalizing the Chinese judiciary

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Former President of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) (and former Minister of Justice) Xiao Yang passed away on 19 April 2019). His funeral was held on 22 Apri. State leaders, including Xi Jinping attended. From the photos and reports I have seen, large numbers of legal professionals attended (one report was of over 1000 attendees), including several hundred from the SPC.

I’ve seen tributes to him in articles published in Chinese social media, personal tributes by many who worked at the SPC during his term in office and a poem composed in his honor. I list below some of the articles in Chinese social media:

I’d like to focus one small aspect of his work that likely won’t be considered important enough to be included in his obituaries in either the Chinese or foreign media–his vision, as SPC president, that internationalizing the education of Chinese judges would be beneficial to China. It was done because he was able to take the view at that time that learning about foreign law was beneficial:

In rule of law construction, it is not possible to close the door; copying and blindly transferring [what is done abroad] is not possible: therefore, as for foreign legal civilization, we must creatively absorb the content that conforms to the general principles of the rule of law according to our situation. In fact, a considerable part of our rule of law construction achievements in the past 40 years have been achieved on the basis of absorbing foreign advanced experience. When we formulated the General Principles of Civil Law, the Contract Law, the Property Law, and even the General Principles of Civil Law, we absorbed a lot of advanced concepts and systems from the civil law system and even the Anglo-American legal system. The principle of crime established in the Criminal Law of 1997 is also modern, contains commonalities with the modern rule of law.搞法治建设,关起门来不行,照搬照抄也不行;因此,对外国法律文明,我们要根据自身情况创造性地吸收借鉴那些符合法治一般规律的内容。事实上,四十年来我们的法治建设成就,有相当一部分是在吸收借鉴外国先进经验的基础上取得的。我们制定民法通则、合同法、物权法乃至民法总则时,就大量吸收了大陆法系甚至是英美法系的先进理念和制度;我们在1997年《刑法》中确立的罪刑法定原则,也正是现代法治中共通性的内容。[please feel free to make corrections to this translation]

He considered sending judges abroad an accomplishment that should be included in reports to the NPC:

  • More than 200 outstanding young and middle-aged judges have been selected from the national courts to study abroad and in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. More than 100 people have returned from their studies and become the backbone of foreign-related trial operations. (从全国法院选送200多名优秀中青年法官到国外和香港特别行政区进修深造,目前已有百余人学成归来,并成为涉外审判业务骨干.)(2002)
  • Continue to organize judges to study and exchange in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the Macao Special Administrative Region, and abroad.(继续组织法官到香港特别行政区、澳门特别行政区以及国外学习交流。)

It is hard to calculate the number of judges at either the SPC or from the lower courts who studied abroad in degree or long-term training programs when Xiao Yang was SPC president.  They do include the CICC judges:

  • Gao Xiaoli:
  • Xi Xiangyang;
  • Song Jianli;
  • Ding Guangyu;
  • Shen Hongyu.

But the number of SPC judges who studied abroad during the Xiao Yang era is not limited to that handful and all who remain at the SPC are considered “backbone cadres” (骨干) (core staff).

Another group of now senior SPC and lower court judges are graduates of LLM programs that are cooperative arrangements between Chinese and foreign universities, such as that between Temple University and Tsinghua.   On the Temple University program, in 2002 former Dean Reinstein testified:

We were originally approached in 1995 by the Ministry of Justice and a
national law school, the China University of Political Science
and Law. They wanted us to consider starting a Masters of Law
Program in Beijing for Chinese lawyers to learn about American
and international law along the lines of a program that we had
already developed in Japan. They said they needed this because
with the development of a market economy in China, they
understood the need to develop a legal system. The route they
wanted to take in developing a legal system was to educate a
core of very highly trained lawyers and government officials
who would learn about the American legal system and
international law and other Western legal systems and adopt
what they thought was appropriate, from that education, and use
that to develop their legal system.
When we started to develop the program, we began to receive
requests from the Supreme People’s Court, and a number of
government ministries to send students. We did start our first
class in 1999 with 35 students, that class included 8 judges
who had been sent by the Supreme Judicial Court, they had
actually nominated 18, we only had scholarship funding for 8.

Many of the ongoing exchange or training programs involving the Chinese judiciary and educational institutions abroad date from the Xiao Yang era, such as the degree programs between the National Judges College and the City University of Hong Kong and the National Judges College and the University of Montreal and it is understood that few students in the Tsinghua/Temple University program are now from the judiciary.

Signals in the 2019 Supreme People’s Court work report to the NPC

Screenshot 2019-04-19 at 8.49.37 AMI have spent some time decoding Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March 2019 report to the National People’s Congress (NPC). As I explain below, it provides signals into how the Chinese courts are changing and may change in the post 19th Party Congress New Era.

This report is both different from and similar to previous reports. The major difference is linked to the 2019 Central Political-Legal Work Conference (at which Xi Jinping set out in his speech (重要讲话) his view of the New Era for political-legal work(新时代政法各项工作) and the accompanying Party regulations on Political-Legal Work.  As I explain below, the report is linked to other recent Party regulations, such as the Regulations on Requesting Instructions and Reporting on Major Matters (中国共产党重大事项请示报告条例)and Regulations on the Work of Selecting and Appointing Party and Government Cadres (党政领导干部选拔任用工作条例). Although the Regulations on Party Groups were only recently issued (15 April), Zhou Qiang must have been aware of their content when drafting his report. It is also likely that he was aware of the Regulations on the Evaluation of the Work of Party and Government Leading Cadres (党政领导干部考核工作条例), issued on 21 April. As I have written before on this blog, the SPC Court President’s work report must be harmonized with the latest stance on political-legal issues.

What is different?

What is different is greater emphasis on political study and Party leadership, although these are themes that found in many previous SPC court president reports.  The emphasis in this year’s report on political study is on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) and Party leadership is on implementing the spirit of the 19th Party Congress  (党的十九大精神) and the January, 2019 Central Political-Legal Work Conference (全面贯…中央政法工作会议精神).

This emphasis shown by the first numbered section of the report.  It is entitled  “Deeply study and implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Uphold the Party’s Absolute Leadership [emphasis added] Over the Work of the People’s Courts (深入学习贯彻习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想坚持党对人民法院工作的绝对领导).”  The phrase “uphold the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the people’s courts” has been used repeatedly since the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference.  The Party Regulations on Political-Legal Work (mentioned above) use the phrase “Party’s absolute leadership.”  Li Ling (of the University of Vienna) sees this as indicating a complete and unambivalent severance from the judicial independence framework. The report identifies the primary political task for the courts to be studying Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th Party Congress decision (坚持把学习贯彻习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想和党的十九大精神作为首要政治任务), and it calls for related training for all  350,000 court personnel (深入开展大学习大研讨大培训,对全国法院35万名干警进行全员轮训).

This section also calls for the strict implementation of the [Party] system of reporting and seeking approval for major matters [also known as requests for instructions](严格落实重大事项请示报告制度)(the Party regulations on reporting and seeking approval for major matters(Chinese version here). Those regulations appear to be linked to the Political-Legal Work Conference but were not publicly issued until the end of February).  As mentioned in my recently published article, 1995 regulations on trial work secrets require requests for instructions and their responses in a case to be placed in the supplementary file. These supplementary files are classified as trial work secrets.  There has been significant criticism over many years of the system of requesting instructions/reporting and seeking approval (as I wrote 26 years ago!), and proposals even within the SPC for the system to be “proceduralized” or “judicialized.” Some  academics have called for abolishing it. For those who can read Chinese, I recommend Renmin University Professor Hou Meng’s 2011 article analyzing the system of seeking instructions. The second judicial reform plan (under the late SPC President Xiao Yang), called for reform to the system of reporting and seeking approval/request for instructions system. In a quick search I did of the SPC’s judgment database for the phrase “sought instructions from the higher court (请示上级法院), I found almost 350 that mentioned the phrase (although a certain proportion related to requesting the higher court to designate jurisdiction).

Another indication of the emphasis on Party leadership is found in the section of the report that relates to the courts’ tasks for 2019.  Section #5 of the court tasks refers to improving the quality of court personnel–“speed up the creation of a revolutionized, regularized, specialized, professionalized team, forge a high quality court team that the Party Center relies upon and the masses are satisfied with.”  As explained in an earlier blogpost, “revolutionized” signals absolute Party leadership  (五是加快推进队伍革命化、正规化、专业化、职业化建设,锻造党中央放心、人民群众满意的高素质法院队伍). This language is consistent with the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference and President Zhou Qiang’s speech to implement the spirit of that Political-Legal Work Conference (note that similar language is found in Procurator-General  Zhang Jun’s report to the NPC).

As in previous years, most of Zhou Qiang’s report was devoted to the SPC’s and lower courts’ accomplishments in various substantive areas and providing selected statistics to support the narrative. Those statistics reveal that most of the cases heard in the Chinese courts are civil and commercial, not criminal.  My incomplete research on the caseload of the SPC comes to a similar conclusion.

What needs to be observed (for those of us focusing on Chinese court developments) is how these recent Party regulations will be integrated with court-related legislation–for example, how the Judges Law will be amended to reflect the latest political developments. [The Judges Law was promulgated on 23 April, a future blogpost will analyze its significance].

Other issues to be observed include the following questions.  What does increased emphasis on Party leadership and political study mean for the operation of the Chinese courts and the increasingly professional judges working within the Chinese court system? The 19th Party Congress report calls for strengthening and improving Party leadership over bodies of state power.   A late January 2019 Central Committee document on strengthening the Party’s political construction (中共中央关于加强党的政治建设的意见) states that the basic nature of various institutions, including the courts (called adjudication /trial organs 审判机关) ) is that they are political institutions (中央和地方各级人大机关、行政机关、政协机关、监察机关、审判机关、检察机关本质上都是政治机关). What does this designation mean for the operation of the courts?

One of the post 19th Party Congress changes that Zhou Qiang mentions is implementing the system of seeking instructions from the Party organization and superior Party organizations and strengthening the leadership role of the Party group in operational (substantive) work and Party construction  (加强对本单位业务工作和党的建设的领导). So what does this mean, for example, for the China International Commercial Court and the SPC’s Intellectual Property Court (and their elite judges), as well as the other SPC judges together dealing with almost 35,000 cases, retaining and attracting high quality legal professionals, particularly at the lower court level (this year’s report recognized that the resignation rate in some local courts is “severe”)? Most of the 28 million cases heard in the Chinese courts were heard at the local level.  What does this mean for confidence in the Chinese court system, be it on the part of the Chinese public, the Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan public, and the international public?  President Zhou Qiang’s report reveals that most of the cases in the Chinese courts involve civil and commercial disputes that for the most part arise between individuals or corporate entities (in 2018 9,017,000 first instance cases involved people’s livelihood, including 1,111,000 first instance employment, medical, pension, and consumer cases), and the courts heard 1,814,000 marriage and family cases. Will integrating socialist core values into judicial interpretations promote the rights of women, not to mention other groups whose rights have traditionally not been fully protected?

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graphic from the SPC English language website

 

 

 

How the Supreme People’s Court borrows helping hands

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Book cover of the English children’s book The Borrowers, translated into Chinese as 地板下的小人

I recently visited the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s) new intellectual property court (SPCIPC) (intellectual property tribunal), currently sharing a building with the Beijing Internet Court, in the Fengtai district of Beijing.  But I will leave comments on the court’s operations to Mark Cohen and other intellectual property lawyers.   From the list of SPCIPC judges in Mark’s recent blogpost, it is clear that many of them have been borrowed from the lower courts.  The blogpost includes the line “..due to the rapid establishment and staffing of this new Court, many of the judges are likely on detail from their prior jobs to the new Court, pending permanent transfer.” It is unclear whether these judges will in fact be permanently transferred to the SPC, or in fact would prefer to do so. This blogpost will shed a bit of light on the phenomenon of the SPC borrowing/temporarily detailing 借调(jiediao)  staff from the lower courts.

As with the guazhi system in the SPC described in one of last year’s blogpost, it is one of the many aspects of the personnel system of the Chinese Party/state system that shapes how the Chinese courts operate.  Under this system, a person from a lower level institution is “borrowed” to assist with work at a higher level institution.  The borrowed person’s employment relationship remains with the lower level institution.  It appears to be a practical solution to the restrictions on SPC permanent headcount imposed by the Central Staff Commission, while being able to field sufficient personnel for the new institutions such as the Intellectual Property Tribunal and Circuit Courts.  Senior judges, such as division heads and vice presidents, have many administrative obligations and less time to hear cases. It is unclear how many borrowed staff the SPC has. Some knowledgeable persons suggest that they can be found in almost every operational department of the SPC.

In my experience, the circuit courts have borrowed judges from the lower courts to serve as judge’s assistants (法官助理).  While it is an imposition for judges to be away from their homes and family, it also an opportunity for them to make themselves known to SPC judges, a connection that may be useful in their later careers, whether or not they remain in the judiciary.

He Fan, head of the planning section of  the SPC’s judicial reform office, wrote about borrowed staff in a 2015 article on his Wechat account:

For lower court judges, being seconded to the higher court to help out is a mixed event. It means that you reach a higher level of experience, broaden your horizons, increase your knowledge, and your chances of being selected by a higher court will increase.  On the other hand, it means being away from loved ones, living for others, … sometimes the opportunity for the promotion in the original court is delayed, the superior court  may not extend an olive branch, and finally only it is only in exchange for a letter of praise from the higher court.

Generally speaking, the lower-level judges are seconded to the higher courts for three reasons. First, as an assistant judge, they are incorporated into the collegial panel to handle cases; second, as a judge’s assistant, assisting the judges of the higher courts in handling the case, such as the assistants of judges in the first and second Circuit Courts of the Supreme People’s Court, who are mostly excellent candidates from the lower courts. The third is to work in the “comprehensive” (supporting) departments, to work in the higher court’s research office, the audit office, the judicial reform and other departments engaged in judicial policy research, drafting judicial rules, etc.