One of the more unusual features of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s website is the “Court President’s mailbox,” by which individuals can send an email to SPC President Zhou Qiang (to email@example.com), and where selected responses are published. President Zhou Qiang established it in 2013, almost exactly six years ago. As to why the SPC has a letter to the court president function, the answer is on the SPC website and the article announcing the launching of the mailbox:
Listening to the opinions and suggestions of society is also required of Zhou Qiang as a senior Party leader. It was part of the mass education and practice campaign and continues to be a fundamental principle in the current “Don’t forget the Party’s original aspirations and firmly remember your mission” campaign.
President Zhou Qiang listed establishing the Court President mailbox as an accomplishment in his 2018 report to the National People’s Congress.
Local courts have followed the SPC’s model by establishing their own “Court President’s mailboxes.” From my own experience, not all [non-spam] emails either to President Zhou Qiang’s or a local court president’s email box are considered to merit a response.
The language of the responses is surprising for the reader used to the very formal language of SPC documents. (One follower of this blog was so surprised that he ask.ed me about this). Many of them start with
Hello! We received your proposal (or query), and after consideration, we respond as follows:您好！《关于…..》收悉。……经研究，答复如下:
And end with this language:
Thank you for your support of the work of the Supreme People’s Court! 感谢您对人民法院执行工作的关心和支持！
A quick but unscientific survey of recently published responses follows. As to why people write, judging from my own experience and the content of published responses, it appears that it is one of the few ways to bring a problem (unrelated to a dispute) to the attention of the court authorities. I have no way of determining whether the responses are representative of the letters submitted, but I surmise that the letters are typical (典型).
Some responses relate to specific proposals. Among recent proposals include anonymizing references to HIV infected persons, stipulating the ceiling interest rate in private lending disputes, and uniforms for judges and judges assistants (specific recommendation not described).
Some responses relate to queries on specific practical issues for litigants, such as whether a plaintiff must provide the defendant’s identity card number when filing a lawsuit, and the deadline for an administrative agency to enforce an administrative penalty or fine.
Issues with the social credit system
Responses to persons seeking to lift restrictions against them imposed by the judgment debtors part of the social credit system seem to constitute a substantial number of responses. In 2019, those included letters published on 8 October. 28 June, 12 June, 17 April, 31 January, among others. If affected persons need to write to Zhou Qiang to resolve their problem, it means that the mechanism in the social credit system for lifting restrictions on judgment debtors once they have complied does not work as well in practice as advertised, to the disadvantage of affected persons.
Issues with the operation of the SPC’s case database (裁判文书网)
Letters raising problems with the operation of the SPC’s case database (China Judgments Online) include letters published on 20 August, 16 July, 28 February. Users complain about problems with the search function, slow loading of pages, and other technical problems. In one response the SPC complains about the database being used by companies using webcrawler or web scraping software, and their efforts to combat this by installing software to prevent it. The SPC does not explain why this should be an issue.
(Complaints about the operation of the SPC’s case database are heard worldwide, judging by comments made at a recent international academic conference on Chinese law at 40 years and other academic conferences.) As a consequence many researchers use alternative providers that offer better search functions and loading times. I understand that the SPC has met with some of these alternative providers, but frustrations with the official database continue.
Who writes the responses?
Most responses lack a specific author. Occasionally a response is published in the name of the SPC’s Research Office or Data Center. The careful reader detects inconsistencies in the way that letters are answered, with some persons addressed as Comrade, others by name, while others by Mr./Ms.
A natural question for legal professionals to ask is about the legal authority of these responses, as some of these responses are republished on Wechat public accounts focusing on law or legal information websites. The answer seems to be “it depends”. One recent response to a question concerned the time limit for an administrative agency to apply to a court to enforce an administrative penalty or fine was given by the SPC’s Research Office. The Research Office is the SPC’s “gatekeeper” for judicial interpretations and is involved in drafting or coordinating the drafting (depending on the topic) of judicial interpretations (an academic article stuck in the production pipeline will provide more details). Although the response is not legally binding (unlike a judicial interpretation), a Research Office response is likely to be highly persuasive guidance. It is one of many tools in the the SPC’s guidance toolbox.