I 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?