New Spirit at the Supreme People’s Court

A fundamental principle of Chinese bureaucracy over the millennia is that a change in leadership brings a change in policy.  As we know,  Zhang Jun (张军) is now the president of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), having taken over from Zhou Qiang in March. 

I surmise that President Zhang Jun’s long career involving criminal law matters, starting out at the SPC and with hands-on experience working in many of the most important institutions related to the SPC has shaped his view of the role and appropriate operation of the Chinese courts. I will first add to the English language description of  President Zhang’s biography before deriving from several recent articles what I view as an evolving new spirit at the SPC. 

Although others have compiled his biography, with one in English and many in Chinese,  I will tweak the narrative in English, based on the Chinese biographies,  and on what I understand to be the importance of the institution in which (I surmise) he had formative experiences. 

The Chinese version of his biography linked above states that between 1985-1995, Zhang Jun worked in the SPC’s Research Office’s General Department and Criminal Law Department as a clerk; then as a deputy judge (助理审判员) and deputy head of the Criminal Law Department; and the head of the Criminal Law Department and judge (审判员), with two years spent outside the SPC, 1990-91 at the Central Party School and in 1991-92, was seconded to the Beijing Haidian District People’s Court as the deputy head of the economic crimes group.  His early career progression reflects what I wrote 30 years ago, that “graduates from law schools assigned to the Court as clerks are generally required to work for two years in a basic level and in an intermediate court to give them experience “at the grassroots level,” while their positions [at the SPC] are retained.” From 1995-98, he was promoted to be one of the deputy heads of the Research Office. 

I emphasize these apparently minor details because, in my view, these were formative experiences that will have an impact on his leadership of the SPC. His early experience reflects the careers of an entire generation of senior legal specialists, most of whom have retired or have been reallocated to pre-retirement roles at the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee or the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Consultative Committee (CPPCC).  He would have been assigned to the SPC (although it is not so stated), and the progression of his career. starting out as a clerk reflects the career path for many (back in the day), as I described in my 1993 article. The quota judge reform (discussed here), has changed the career path for young judicial personnel. The fact that President Zhang started out and spent many years at the SPC’s Research Office means that he is deeply familiar with the making and implementation of judicial policy, particularly criminal law (and procedure) policy.  I mean policy broadly.

This gives me an opportunity to flag the role of the SPC’s Research Office.  It is a special institution within the SPC, designated as a comprehensive operational department (综合业务部门),  which one former staff member described to me as the “Brains” of the SPC.  At the time that President Zhang was assigned to the office, the China Institute for Applied Jurisprudence had not yet been established, so applied research would have been done by the Research Office.  As can be derived from multiple earlier blogposts, it is closely involved with the drafting of judicial policy and interpretations, as well as Hong Kong and Macau-related and juvenile-related judicial matters. The Research Office is the gatekeeper for reviewing proposals for new or amended judicial interpretations, as well as examining and coordinating the drafting of judicial interpretations. It also acts as the liaison when other central institutions forward their draft legislation and draft judicial interpretations to the SPC for comments, coordinating the SPC’s response with other divisions and offices, with a knowledgeable person noting to me earlier that “the view of the Research Office prevails.” It appears to have an analogous role in the drafting of judicial policy documents.  I noted earlier that it has an important role in responding to requests for instructions from the lower courts.   

A quotation of SPC Senior Judge Yu Tongzhi (previously mentioned in this blog) from his 2020 book, Ten Lessons on Criminal Practice, is relevant in understanding the thinking of Chinese judges working in the area of criminal law and procedure):

talking politics [讲政治] is a basic quality required of a criminal judge [Talking about politics, in a nutshell, means observing and dealing with problems politically. ]. In the past, we often said that criminal adjudication [trials] was a “knife handle”(刀把子)[tool of the Party], now this slogan is used less, but the function of criminal trials as a “knife handle” has never disappeared and cannot disappear. Of course there is no contradiction with strengthening the protection of human rights. Now Central leaders repeatedly say: the primary responsibility of the entire political-legal system is to safeguard political security, not only criminal adjudication and not only the adjudication work of the courts…

Judges from the SPC  down to the local district courts (and the Monitor as well) are observing SPC media for signals of changes in policy.  Gradually President Zhang Jun’s priorities will become clear to those of us outside the System and we will see which of Zhou Qiang’s initiatives will remain vibrant.  A number of President Zhang Jun’s talks and visits have been made public–the purpose is to inform those in and outside the System of the spirit of the Chinese courts under new leadership.  I’ll identify a few articles that twinkle new, amended, or repurposed policies and priorities.  

The first article  (and in my view, the most important) is the earliest, 抓实公正与效率 (Seize Justice and Efficiency), in which President Zhang Jun transforms General Secretary/President Xi Jinping’s series of speeches during the Two Sessions, the spirit of the annual Central Political-Legal Commission Conference, and suggestions from NPC and CPPCC deputies into more specific measures for the SPC leadership and correspondingly, the entire court system to implement.  The ability to do this well is a crucial skill for any SPC President.  According to a subsequent report about President Zhang Jun’s speech at the National Judges College, the themes in this article were transformed into a special training course for local senior court leaders.

Among the themes he stressed were: “serving the overall situation, serving people’s justice, and promoting the political foundation of the party’s governance”, which he characterized as the “duties and missions” of the people’s courts.   He did not discuss the broader implications of “serving the overall/greater situation (大局服务).”  As I have written a great deal on SPC policy documents issued in the past 10 years and I predicted in this 2022 brief article that the SPC will focus more on issuing policy documents,  I will be monitoring SPC official media to see whether any change is visible in the way that judicial policy is transmitted.

President Zhang Jun stressed the themes of “fairness (justice) and efficiency (公正与效率). Promoting fairness/justice, he characterized as promoting substantive fairness, while paying attention to procedural fairness. He said “It is necessary to avoid simply [mechanically]  ‘handling of cases according to law.’    It is the people who feel fairness and justice, not ourselves, we need to stress procedural justice…People come to the court to solve problems, not to ‘follow the procedure’. ”  The theme of combining substantive and procedural justice is not new in China (there is a robust scholarly literature (including in English) discussing it, with a forthcoming related article by Professors Rachel Stern and Benjamin Liebman, Gao Wenwa, and Wu Xiaohan that I recommend (I was privileged to read a pre-publication draft). The fact that President Zhang Jun raised these themes so early means that they will be emphasized during his term in office.

The second theme that he stressed is improving efficiency, but without an overemphasis on efficiency,  which he said would lead to more petitioning. He also encouraged judges to engage in the in-depth analysis of judicial big data,  put forward judicial suggestions to relevant departments (see a recent paper on this topic), and promote the strengthening and comprehensive management of resolving disputes at source (mentioned in earlier blogposts). 

He flagged ‘handling a typical case and promoting a solution for a group,’  so we can expect continued or greater use of typical (model/exemplary) cases (as discussed earlier).  Unsurprisingly, President Zhang Jun reminded court leaders of their dual responsibilities (political and professional matters) and reminded them of the requirement to implement the “three regulations,” that is reporting the interference in the handling of cases, and the failure to report interference.  It can be surmised that the incompletely implemented judicial reform of Chinese court finances, along with the deterioration of local public finances means that courts are under even more pressure to protect local interests.  President Zhang Jun reminded judges that these are needed to promote an incorrupt judiciary and signaled that disciplinary inspection and supervision departments should strengthen supervision. I surmise that the SPC itself will be a target of heightened scrutiny by those institutions, in view of the multiple corruption cases that arose in recent years, especially given the larger number that arose compared to those at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate.  

2. 国家法官学院开学第一课——能动司法 (The First Class at the National Judges College–Judicial Activism).  Although President Zhang signalled how he thought criminal, civil, and administrative case hearing should be modernized in his speech to newly appointed intermediate and basic level court presidents, the most important message in the speech was about judicial activism (能动司法 but different from Marbury v. Madison–his reference). He said an “active judiciary must strictly perform its duties in accordance with the law. Political effects and social effects extend from legal effects. Sacrificing legal effects to talk about so-called political effects and social effects one-sidedly violates the comprehensive rule of law and loses the legal basis. How can it be good? ” Over 10 years ago, SPC President Wang Shenjun promoted judicial activism (there appears to be a large English-language discussion of this term, mostly behind publishers’ paywalls, but my reading is that President Zhang is repurposing the term. How he is repurposing it remains to be seen.

3. 就是头拱地也要把人民的事办好 “Even if you put your head down, you must do the people’s affairs well.”  This article reports on an SPC Party Group related to the ongoing thematic education campaign (主题教育). President Zhang stressed that the courts need to do a better good job in the work of “responding to letters” (把“有信必复”工作做实做好),  He said “responding to letters” is a systematic project that requires overall planning and scientific arrangements.  He said “‘respond to every letter’  (“有信必复) is to let the people know that the letter has been received and who is handling it in the shortest possible time.”   He noted that the petitioning related to litigation, in the final analysis, shows that the courts have not done their work well enough (涉诉信访问题说到底,是法院的工作还有不足). 

He reminded his audience that leaders of courts at all levels should take the lead in handling major difficult and complicated cases reflected in letters, promote substantive resolution, and ensure the smooth and orderly development of this work. ” 

I take from this that letters and visits work will become much more important in the local courts, with the stress on resolving the underlying issue (linking to the ongoing theme of “resolving disputes at source” and the greater importance of letters and visits (Xinfang) work nationally.  It is not likely that court leaders will deal with petitioners in the first instance.  Professors He Xin and Feng Yuxin wrote about veteran petitioners in this 2018 article (behind the paywall again).  The experience of some friends who are working or have worked in local courts is that petitioners can be very strategic in the way they petition, with keen sensibilities about how to extract the maximum benefits from petitioning.  Now retired Justice Hu Yunteng wrote about how to best handle administrative litigation-related petitioning at the #2 Court, explained here.  From this recent article in People’s Daily, it appears that the Shenzhen Intermediate Court has led the way in litigation-related petitioning reform, investing much more staff time (I surmise including judges) and creating a platform for responding to visits, calls, and letters from the public, with a 100% rate of responses to calls. 

4. 办公室不是清水衙门    “the office isn’t a clear water yamen.” This phrase is a contrast to what I wrote about the SPC 30 years ago.  In my 1993 article, I quoted a graduate of a prominent Beijing law school, who told me he and his classmates were reluctant to be assigned to the SPC, and labelled it a “clear water yamen” for the low salary, meager fringe benefits, shabby housing, and rigid internal discipline.”  President Zhang warned that judges and judicial personnel face the risk of being “hunted” [sought for improper benefits] in different forms. They must always “adhere to the moral integrity and self-discipline”, keep vigilant…and do not want to be corrupt. “The three regulations [mentioned above, about reporting improper interference] must be strictly enforced.”  President Zhang has mentioned team rectification (队伍整顿) several times, linked to the thematic education campaign. 

5. 承继人民司法优良传统 以审判工作现代化服务保障中国式现代化 ‘Inheriting the fine traditions of the people’s judiciary, guaranteeing Chinese-style modernization with the modernization of trial work”-this article is an account with his meeting with the old cadres of the SPC.  I derive a sense of the new spirit concerning judicial reform from this article.  President Zhang said ” a full assessment of the implementation of the judicial reforms undertaken in recent years should be undertaken, the positive aspects should be summarized, and those that have encountered problems in implementation should be deeply improved” (对近些年的司法改革实施情况做一个全面的评估,好的方面要总结,落实中的问题要深化完善).  From this, I surmise that we will not see major judicial reforms (see Dean Jiang Huiling’s analysis), but more limited measures to improve the implementation of previous measures and the assessment will be for internal use only, as one for external use (the judicial reform white paper) has already been issued.

This article has flagged only some of the work and priorities of the Chinese courts under President Zhang Jun, in the short time he has been in office.  There are many areas of law for which I have not seen related reports. For those matters discussed above, how the work is implemented and priorities are implemented in practice over the next years as well as the impact of these priorities remain to be seen.  


Many thanks to my anonymous peer reviewers for reviewing a draft of this blogpost.