Controlling Judicial Headcount in the New Era

Screenshot 2020-03-19 at 4.32.02 PMIn the middle of March 2020, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Party Group convened a meeting (pictured above) to discuss the topic of “strengthen the awareness of the system, maintain the authority of the system, make stricter the management of the system, build a tougher court team, and work hard to build a model organization on which the Party Center can rely and that satisfies the masses (强化制度意识,维护制度权威,严格制度管理,打造过硬法院队伍,努力建设让党中央放心、让人民群众满意的模范机关).  Part of this phrase appeared in several of my blogposts in the past year (not surprisingly), and also can be seen across used by other Party and state institutions in 2019 (not surprisingly).  Although the discussion at the meeting centered around two topics–judicial headcount (bianzhi 编制) and selecting leaders (领导干部选拔任用, nomenklatura)–this short blogpost will focus on judicial headcount (bianzhi).

Chinese law, unlike legislation in many countries (see German legislation, for example), does not state clearly how many judges are on its highest court. It is also unclear how many persons work in the operational divisions of the SPC (the ones that decide cases) vs. the administrative (general, 综合部门) of the SPC.  As I wrote in an earlier blogpost, it is unclear how many judges in the SPC have been “borrowed” from the lower courts.  And as I wrote earlier about the SPC judicial committee, it appears that likely that the Central Staffing Commission regulates the number of persons who can be SPC vice presidents. I surmised that Justices Hu Yunteng, Liu Guixiang, Pei Xianding, and He Xiaorong were given the title of  “专委“ (full-time members of the judicial committee) to give them a bureaucratic rank equivalent to being an SPC vice president, with attendant privileges. The bianzhi system supplies the reason.

The bianzhi system provides insights into the thinking of the Chinese political leadership about how it views legal institutions, including the courts. It appears to treat the SPC as just another Party/state institution whose functions, internal institutions, and personnel the Party must set (the jargon in Chinese is the “three sets”(“三定”)(职能配置、内设机构和人员编制). It also shows the bureaucratic nature (官本位) of the SPC.  The bianzhi system illustrates that the SPC has a different role in the Chinese political system from the supreme courts of other major jurisdictions. This discussion and other ongoing discussions within the SPC on its “three sets” plan illustrates how the Party is reshaping legal institutions in the New Era. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) has already been reshaped. This is part of the post-18th Party Congress (and 19th Party Congress) reshaping of Party and state institutions, to ensure the correct implementation of Party leadership.

The bianzhi system

The bianzhi system is a system for creating and eliminating Party/government/state-owned enterprise/institutional posts by identifying the necessary functions the system needs to fulfill. Those in the SPC are part of the government (政务) civil service/Party/government) system.  The bianzhi system is administered by the Central Staffing Commission. The Central Staffing Commission has an office (常设办事机构) that administers staffing matters, and it, in turn, is administered by the Party’s Organization Department.  Those whose posts are within the bianzhi system have civil service benefits and are said to “eat imperial grain.” (More scholarship on the bianzhi system can be found here and here). I should mention, however, that since 1982 the bianzhi system has given those in the political-legal institutions special status and special (专项) bianzhi. In 2015, the Central Staffing Commission issued a document on reforming the treatment of political-legal staff, including judges, which I mentioned in my 2019 article on transparency.

As to why the SPC Party Group discussed bianzhi in March, 2020, it is linked to new regulations on bianzhi work issued by the political leadership in August, 2019 (中国共产党机构编制工作条例) and apparently ongoing work on reshaping the internal institutions of the SPC, linked to those new regulations. (For those interested in cross-straits comparisons, please see analogous legislation from Taiwan.

In 2018, the SPC and the Central Staffing Commission issued regulations on the bianzhi of the lower courts, and some of the same principles in those regulations can be expected to applied when the SPC draws up its own “three-set” plan.  Those regulations were intended to control the number of internal institutions within a court, allocate more personnel to operational divisions, and standardize the functions and titles of internal institutions across provinces and nationally.  From my informal discussions with leaders in some busy local courts, they say that relying on bianzhi staff does not give them enough personnel to run their court, and contract staff are needed.

The principles for bianzhi work, as highlighted in the 2019 regulations are: 1) Upholding Party leadership over bianzhi work, the Party shall exercise centralized and unified leadership over bianzhi work, upholding and protecting General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core…( 坚持党管机构编制。坚持党对机构编制工作的集中统一领导,坚决维护习近平总书记党中央的核心); high quality in coordination with efficiency; the binding nature (like steel) of bianzhi (坚持机构编制刚性约束); and bianzhi must be slim and healthy.

The press report only vaguely hints on what the reshaping of the SPC will look like. President Zhou Qiang mentions a “trial centered” internal institutional model and personnel model, strengthening internal responsibility and operational matters, to ensure that the people’s courts can fulfill the demands of their responsibilities according to law.  Whether this means that more headcount will be allocated to the operational divisions of the SPC rather than the General Office and other administrative offices is unclear.  Whether it means that some of the smaller divisions of the SPC will shrink further is unclear. And whether it means that fewer people will be “borrowed,” I have my grave doubts.

Another unknown is whether the SPC’s “three sets” plan will be made available to the general public.  My guess is no (some approved plans are posted on the Central Staffing Commission’s website), but we are likely to see President Zhou Qiang issue a press release or discuss it at a news conference, as Chief Procurator Zhang Jun did last year, but not for some time.

A fundamental question not raised by the reports, but perhaps was in the minds of the participants in the meeting, is whether the bianzhi system, implementing the above principles, is consistent with some of the  SPC’s policy goals. One that comes to mind is being able to accommodate changes in where personnel is needed–a policy of rigidly enforcing bianzhi restrictions would be unhelpful.  After all, SPC leaders need to be “problem-oriented” (坚持问题导向), that is address relevant practical issues facing the court system as well as being politically correct, so that may mean that headcount needs to shift among divisions from time to time.

 

Supreme People’s Court updates its Belt & Road policies

Screen Shot 2019-12-29 at 9.15.50 PMAt a press conference on 27 December (2019) the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) #4 Civil Division (the division focusing on cross-border commercial issues) announced it had issued three documents: a judicial interpretation and two judicial policy documents. The documents are connected directly or indirectly to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and improving China’s foreign investment environment.

  1. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of the “People’s Republic of China Foreign Investment Law” (FIL Interpretation) (最高人民法院关于适用〈中华人民共和国外商投资法〉若干问题的解释);
  2. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion #2) (关于人民法院进一步为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的意见); and
  3. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for Construction of the Lingang area of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (Lingang FTZ Opinion) (关于人民法院为中国(上海)自由贸易试验区临港新片区建设提供司法服务和保障的意见).

The two Opinions update two of the SPC’s two major policy documents on cross-border issues: the 2015 Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion, and Opinion on Providing Guarantees for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (FTZ Opinion). Policy documents do not have the force of law. They are examples of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing documents to support important strategies or initiatives (serving the greater situation (服务大局). In the New Era, the SPC has issued over dozen policy documents that provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies or initiatives, many more than before.  These Opinions are intended to harmonize the two earlier policy documents with post 19th Party Congress developments and priorities, including those mentioned in the Fourth Plenum Decision. I had previously reviewed the two earlier documents in detail.  My analysis of the Pilot FTZ Opinion can be found here and I have previously written and spoken about the BRI Opinion.  This blogpost draws on correspondence I had recently with Professor Vivienne Bathof the University of Sydney, but I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.  This blogpost discusses BRI Opinion #2.

2.  Belt & Road Opinion #2

This document is longer than the other two put together and has much more substantive and political content. Comments on the first section will focus on the political issues, while comments on the rest of the document will discuss the other content in the document:

  • political signaling on discrete issues;
  • judicial policy changes;
  • signaling to various audiences;
  • instructions and guidance to the lower courts;
  • highlighting future possible changes to SPC positions on legal issues;
  • promoting or supporting certain government initiatives within the courts;
  • reiterating basic policies.

New requirements and tasks (Section 1)

In keeping with post 19th Party Congress trends and the spirit of the 2019 Political-Legal  Work conference, BRI Opinion #2 has more politically oriented content and references than the 2015 BRI Opinion. As it must be harmonized with the latest Party and government policy, it includes the latest judicial policy jargon, such as “improving the business environment” and “creating an international, law-based and convenient business environment with stability, fairness, transparency, and predictability.”

The first section includes a long paragraph on working principles. For the casual reader, the principles are an odd hotpot of political, substantive, procedural, and administrative matters but in keeping with its role in the document. It is all about political signaling. To the person unfamiliar with these documents, it gives the reader the impression that if she put her chopsticks in one place in the hotpot, she would pull up support for international arbitration and if in another, support for constructing litigation service centers.

Policy changes and signaling (section 2)

This section contains seven apparently unconnected provisions. They are linked by their political and practical importance: judicial cooperation in criminal law; protecting the right of domestic and cross-border parties; supporting multilateralism; supporting the development of international logistics; supporting opening up in the financial sector; supporting the development of information technology, intellectual property, and green development. This section is a combination of signaling to the political authorities and the lower courts.

One notable provision is on judicial cooperation in the area of criminal law. Article 4 mentions the Beijing Initiative for the Clean Silk Road, and zero tolerance for corruption.  Doing something about cross-border corruption offenses is not a matter primarily of the SPC, as this analysis notes and has greater implications for state-owned enterprises (SOEs). This provision calls for the people’s courts to work with the judicial organs of other countries and regions along the “Belt and Road” to build jointly a judicial anti-terrorism mechanism, and curb the spreading of terrorism.  The link to the SPC is that we can anticipate that some staff from the SPC would be involved in negotiating regional or bilateral arrangements relevant to anti-terrorism (along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Public Security Ministry). In an indirect way, it illustrates how the SPC works with other Party and government departments on legal issues, one of the distinctive functions of the SPC that rarely receives much attention.

On signaling to the lower courts, in addition to the section on financial cases, discussed in the previous blogpost, Article 6 is a reminder to the lower courts to apply the relevant rules of determining contract validity and liabilities in civil and commercial cases involving free trade agreements or cooperation documents signed between China and other countries. In any case, it is their obligation in applying relevant law.  Perhaps the SPC has issued the reminder because lower courts have failed to do too often.

Although Article 11 (on environmental protection) has received attention from a prominent environmental lawyer who saw the inclusion of cross-border environmental public interest litigation in the Opinion as ground-breaking, knowledgeable persons suggested it is a merely a reminder to local courts that they can take such cases provided current legal requirements are met, such as jurisdiction over the defendant, location of the pollution, and the social organization meeting specified requirements.

Specific policy (Section 3)

Section 3 contains signals on changes to specific judicial policies, reminders to the lower courts and also political signals, including highlighting SPC accomplishments. Article 13 signals to the lower courts some new policy on contract interpretation. It addresses situations that commonly arise when one party alleges fraud or collusion to avoid contract liability. The SPC reminds lower courts that evidence should be reviewed carefully, and the evidentiary standard should be beyond a reasonable doubt(根据排除合理怀疑的证据规则严格认定欺诈、恶意串通).  Article 13 directs courts to apply foreign law if the choice of foreign law would uphold contract validity.

This section has quite a few reminders to the lower courts to do what they should already be doing, such as: actively applying international conventions applicable to China; respecting international practices and international commercial rules; fully respecting parties’ governing law choice and explaining how they determined it; taking a restrictive approach towards declaring contracts invalid. Governing law is a sore spot in certain maritime matters, where the Chinese courts in a number of cases have set aside parties’ choice of law for a failure to have an actual connection.

Extending the influence of Chinese law abroad is a policy that received new impetus in the November, 2019 Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Central Committee, and therefore it is found in Article 20 and again in Article 21 (in the following section).  Linked to this is language on increasing the prestige of the Chinese courts and the China International Commercial Court in particular. The language echoes and extends the 4th Plenum of the 18th Party Central Committee and BRI #1 Opinion, by calling on the people’s courts to extend the influence of Chinese law, publish typical cases tried by Chinese courts in multiple languages, lay a solid foundation for courts and arbitration institutions to correctly understand and apply Chinese laws, and strengthen the understanding and trust of international businesses of Chinese law. From the fact that the SPC envisions Chinese courts as having a role in assisting foreign courts and arbitration institutions to “correctly understand and apply Chinese law” shows that the SPC has a distinctive understanding of the role of a court.

On related accomplishments, one relates to typical cases in foreign languages and the other to the creation of the foreign law ascertainment platform. In 2019, the SPC published typical cases on cross-border issues in English, by publishing a pair of books on China Foreign-Related Commercial Cases and Maritime Cases (in China). It has also published a book of Chinese cases translated into English through Springer. On foreign law ascertainment, the accomplishment is the SPC having established a bilingual foreign law ascertainment platform, that assembles in one platform the available resources for ascertaining foreign law and a number of cases that involve ascertaining foreign law. There has been discussion in China as to whether courts should take such an active role in ascertaining foreign law, but the SPC has made a policy decision that it should.

International Commercial Court and One-Stop Dispute Resolution (Sections 4 and 5)

The BRI Opinion #2 contains several provisions related to the China International Commercial Court (CICC), with some mention of its expert committee.  Article 23 mentions working with international commercial courts outside of China to establish various types of exchanges and cooperation, including training judges. It is unclear whether this a reference to increasing cooperation under the Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts or other future initiatives.

These two sections also signals to the lower courts policy changes and policies to be stressed. One policy to be noted is implementing the policy of mediating first (贯彻调解优先原则), which is already incorporated into the CICC rules.  Some of the difficulties in mediating cross-border disputes involving state-owned enterprises were discussed in this earlier blogpost and at the workshop on implementing the Singapore Mediation Convention that I attended in December (2019).

Some new developments underway are mentioned in this section, linking to the central government’s policy of supporting Hong Kong’s role as an international dispute resolution center. Article 34 calls for support for increased cooperation with the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and other Hong Kong-based arbitration institutions, and appropriately involving Hong Kong-based institutions in CICC’s one-stop model. Article 35 mentions supporting offshore arbitration institutions being able to hear cases in China. (a development underway in recent months).

An important practical issue is raised in Article 31, which mentions improving the mechanism of coordinating cross-border bankruptcy (insolvency), and exploring (探索) applying the systems of the principal bankruptcy procedures and the center of the debtor’s main interests. This is likely linked to domestic development of bankruptcy law and the recognition that with BRI and thousands of Chinese companies investing abroad, some number will (or have) gone into bankruptcy (insolvency) proceedings. “Improving” and “exploring” mean that they are on the agenda of the SPC. It appears that the first related development occurred in Hong Kong in January 2020, when Judge Jonathan Harris granted recognition and assistance to mainland liquidators of CEFC (description of the case and link to judgment found here).  He concluded his judgment by stating” the extent to which greater assistance should be provided to Mainland administrators in the future will have to be decided on a case by case basis and the development of recognition is likely to be influenced by the extent to which the court is satisfied that the Mainland, like Hong Kong, promotes a unitary approach to transnational insolvencies.”

As I discussed in a recent blogpost and earlier, the SPC is seeking to use the CICC and its decisions (judgments/rulings) to guide the lower courts and to pilot reforms that are replicable (a Chinese judicial reform concept), as stated in Article 22 and 25: “the role of cases in determining rules and guiding behavior…and the role of the CICC in providing models and guidance shall be developed.  (发挥国际商事法庭示范引领作用…发挥好案例的规则确定 和行为指引作用).

Article 24 concerns presumptive reciprocity and mentions gradually promote reciprocity between commercial courts. This may signal that the judicial interpretation on enforcement of foreign court judgments is further delayed and that the SPC is taking a gradual approach by working towards mutual recognition and enforcement of international commercial court judgments, which would involve a smaller group of foreign judgments.

Themes that are not new in this section include supporting parties’ right to choose an appropriate dispute resolution forum.  It can be imagined that the #4 Civil Division judges considered that this basic principle needed repeating. Another ongoing theme, with more political coloration, is encouraging BRI dispute resolution, including investor-state dispute resolution to be heard in China. This is mentioned explicitly in Article 28, which lists measures “so that more international commercial disputes can be efficiently resolved in China.”  This is not new, but is part of a push that this blog noted as early as 2016, to move the locus of China-related dispute resolution from London and other centers in Europe (or elsewhere) to China, where Chinese parties will encounter a more familiar dispute resolution system.

Article 32 mentions investment dispute resolution, and supporting “relevant departments in improving international investment dispute resolution mechanisms and organizations, respecting the dispute resolution clauses in bilateral and multilateral investment agreements, and resolving international investment disputes in a fair and efficient manner.”  This appears to be an acknowledgment that the SPC is in discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other institutions on dealing with difficult issues related to enforcing international investment dispute arbitration awards in China (discussed here).

Personnel & Institutional Matters

The concluding section includes a notice in Article 37 to the lower courts that they shall “strengthen and improve the mechanism of coordination and guidance, and step up communication and cooperation with the relevant entities and departments.” This is a theme seen in many of the opinions issued by the SPC and reflects one of the many functions of the Chinese courts.

As discussed in the preceding blogpost, references in Article 38 and 39 to exchanges and training send signals within the SPC and its institutions, as well as lower courts about the types of programs that may be promoted, permitted or explored. It is likely that the National Judges College, its provincial branches, and its partners will continue to train foreign judges, as has expanded greatly in recent years. It appears that there could be greater possibilities for Chinese judges to go on exchange with other countries than has been possible in recent years. From my own contacts and experience with It may also provide the basis for a local court or division of the SPC to apply for funding to hold a legal roundtable or host an international exchange.

Concluding remarks

This Opinion is typical of New Era SPC policy documents providing guarantees and support for specific Party and government strategies and initiatives.  For a reader from outside the Chinese government system (体制), it takes knowledge of a constellation of related policies and practices to decode. This blogpost has been able to identify some of them.

BRI Opinion #2 has a great deal of content, not all discussed in this blogpost. Some have practical importance for practitioners in China and elsewhere.  But a larger question to consider, that likely was not in minds of the drafters, is whether this type of policy-oriented document is useful in reassuring foreign governments, foreign state-owned companies, and commercial entities that their dispute is best heard in China?  From my discussions with practitioners in various parts of the world, they may not be aware that BRI Opinion #2 even exists.

 

 

 

 

How are Supreme People’s Court Opinions structured?

Screen Shot 2019-12-29 at 9.15.50 PM

27 December SPC Press conference:from left, Li Guangyu (spokesperson); Justice Luo Dongchuan (vice president); Judge Wang Shumei (head of #4 Civil Division); Gao Xiaoli (deputy head, #4 Civil Division)

When the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues an “opinion” (意见), it is not issuing a judgment or ruling.  It is issuing a policy document, without the force of law.  In the New Era, the SPC has issued over dozen policy documents that provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies or initiatives, many more than before. They are examples of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing policy documents to support important strategies or initiatives (serving the greater situation (服务大局). What few, if any have written about is the structure of these opinions that support important strategies or initiatives as they relate to civil and commercial law issues. Understanding the structure is key to understanding the documents. Understanding opinions is important for understanding current issues in the courts and the future direction of judicial policy.

This blogpost uses the two opinions announced at the 27 December 2019 press conference pictured above, at which Justice Luo Dongchuan and Judges Wang Shumei and Gao Xiaoli (head and deputy head of the #4 Civil Division) introduced the two opinions (and a judicial interpretation). A subsequent blogpost will highlight what is new in these three documents. All three are connected directly or indirectly to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and improving China’s foreign investment environment. The two opinions are:

  1. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for the Belt & Road (2) (BRI Opinion #2) (关于人民法院进一步为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的意见); and
  2. Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for Construction of the Lingang area of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (Lingang FTZ Opinion) (关于人民法院为中国(上海)自由贸易试验区临港新片区建设提供司法服务和保障的意见).

The Opinions update two of the SPC’s two major recent policy documents on cross-border issues: the 2015 Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion, and Opinion on Providing Guarantees for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (FTZ Opinion).

The BRI Opinion #2 and Lingang FTZ Opinion are intended to harmonize the two earlier policy documents with post 19th Party Congress developments and priorities, including those mentioned in the  2019 19th Party Central Committee Fourth Plenum Decision. I had previously reviewed the BRI Opinion and FTZ Opinions in detail.  My analysis of the Pilot FTZ Opinion can be found here and I have previously written and spoken about the BRI Opinion.

Lower courts may issue documents that supplement the SPC’s policy documents, as is true with these Opinions.  This is a subject that I have written about on this blog and elsewhere before. The Shanghai Higher People’s Court has already issued a guidance document that provides related services and guarantees, with important content.

The two Opinions also link to three different events or matters–the promulgation of the Foreign Investment Law; the Second Belt & Road Forum for International Cooperation; and Xi Jinping’s visit to Shanghai and establishment of the Lingang Special Area of the Shanghai FTZ.

Structure of these Opinions

The structure of the two opinions is typical for SPC civil and commercial opinions “providing judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies and initiatives.  Opinions often (but not always) start out with a first section with titles analogous to the section titles of these two Opinions:

I. Comprehensively grasping the new requirements and new tasks in serving the “Belt and Road” Initiative

I. Enhance understanding and get aligned with the mission of offering judicial services and guarantees to the New Area

A sample of the language of the first section is quoted below, from the second paragraph of the BRI Opinion #2:

Keeping committed to the concept of further providing judicial services and
guarantees by the people’s courts for the “Belt and Road” Initiative: The people’s courts shall firmly take the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the guideline; study and fulfill the spirit of the19th CPC National Congress and the Second, Third, and Fourth Plenary Sessions of the 19th CPC Central Committee, as well as the essence of the key speech of General Secretary Xi Jinping on the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation; strengthen consciousness of the need to maintain political integrity, think in big-picture terms, follow the leadership core, and keep in alignment…

The purpose of this initial section is two-fold. The first is to notify the lower courts of the political goals, background, and principles of the Opinion. The second to signal to the political-legal hierarchy that the policies that the SPC sets out in the body of the opinion are harmonized with the latest Party/government policies.

There are no hard and fast rules concerning the body of opinions, as analogous sections may occur in different order.  It may depend on the drafters and the topic involved.

The second section of the BRI Opinion has its counterpart in the third section of the Lingang FTZ Opinion:

II. Further performing the role of judicial trials, and serving and guaranteeing the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” with high quality in all aspects

III. Strengthen judicial trial function and maintain an institutional regime in the New Area focusing on investments/trade liberalization

These sections are meant to notify the lower courts about current relevant judicial policy, and implicitly inform them of any changes from previous policy and what the lower courts must do in support of that policy goal. The policies are likely to be linked to current Party/government policy.  From the BRI Opinion #2:

The people’s courts shall support the opening-up policy in the financial sector; the exemplary role (示范作用) of financial courts shall be maximized; eligible courts shall be encouraged to build special trial teams for financial cases; the application of law in foreign-related financial cases shall be further regulated and standardized;…valuable experiences of foreign countries in efficiently hearing financial cases shall be drawn upon…

Article 10, in Section III of the Lingang FTZ Opinion calls for

closer ties and communication mechanisms with the financial regulatory authorities shall be built to facilitate the construction of an integrated and efficient financial management system, in a bid for a better environment for doing business, for prevention of financial risks and for better national financial security.

In support of the opening-up policy in the financial sector, the SPC is promoting the role of financial courts (currently Shanghai, others to follow) in providing new mechanisms or methods in hearing cases or in their operations.  That is visible from the Shanghai Financial Court’s innovations in class actions in the sphere of securities law claims (claims against issuers, underwriters, directors and management, control parties, etc. for false and misleading disclosure upon initial issuance or in periodic reporting).  The Shenzhen intermediate court has established a special trial team for financial cases but not a separate court. From Article 10 of the Lingang FTZ Opinion, it can be anticipated that the Shanghai Financial Court has or will establish special communication channels with the financial regulators.

The titles of the third section of the BRI Opinion #2 is:

III . Further improving the application of law in cases involving the Belt and Road Initiative, and building a stronger rule-based business environment that is governed by law

From BRI Opinion #2:

13. The people’s courts shall vigorously carry forward the contract spirit and the good faith principle, and determine the acts of fraud and malicious collusion based on the rules of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. If, in a civil or commercial case involving the construction, operation, purchasing, or bidding process of a project, there is a discrepancy on contract validity between the laws of the relevant countries, the people’s courts shall apply the law that holds the contract valid without damaging the honest party or benefiting the dishonest one, and promote mutual trust and benefits between the participants in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Each article in the third section of the BRI Opinion #2 focuses on a specific policy that the SPC wants the lower courts to promote.  In article 13, the SPC is seeking to control the tendency of lower courts to find a contract invalid because of allegations of fraud or malicious collusion, likely made by a Chinese litigant seeking to avoid contractual liability.  The Lingang FTZ Opinion does not have an exact counterpart to section III of the BRI Opinion #2, but has articles that focus on specific policies to be promoted, such as “properly handling cross-border bankruptcy cases….”

The title of the final section of BRI Opinion # 2 is:

VI. Further strengthening the organizational structure and team building to coordinate efforts to serve and guarantee the Belt and Road Initiative.

The last section relates to institutional and personnel matters. Take the following paragraph in the BRI Opinion #2 as an example:

39. The role of international exchange and research platforms such as international forums, legal roundtables..shall be further strengthened, and the exchanges and cooperation with the judicial systems of other countries shall be conducted. Training and studying programs for foreign judges shall be supported, and foreign legal service providers and think-tanks for the Initiative shall be invited to China to exchange views with Chinese counterparts so as to promote the formation of a diverse and interactive platform for legal exchanges….

Content in the last paragraph of the Lingang FTZ Opinion has some analogous provisions:

Establish a study training program and talent cultivation mechanism in line with international standards…Efforts shall be made to…(2) further expand international judicial communication channels, organize international judicial forums….

These provisions send signals within the SPC and its institutions, as well as lower courts about the types of programs that may be promoted, permitted or explored.  It is likely that the National Judges College, its provincial branches, and its partners will continue to train foreign judges, as has expanded greatly in recent years.  It appears that there could be greater possibilities for Chinese judges to go on exchange with other countries than has been possible in recent years.   It may also provide the basis for a local court or division of the SPC to apply for funding to hold a legal roundtable or host an international exchange. For the Lingang FTZ Opinion, it gives the Shanghai courts priority in organizing international programs and establishing programs to send outstanding young judges focusing on cross-border commercial issues on educational programs either in China or abroad.

The official report states that the SPC Party Group approved the two Opinions.  It appears from my previous research that pre-19th Party Congress, SPC policy documents did not necessarily require SPC Party Group approval. I surmise since the Party Political-Legal Work Regulations were promulgated in January 2019, it has now become a requirement, because Article 15 requires Party Groups/Committees to be responsible for setting major policies and directions.

______________________________

My thanks to a knowledgeable person for triggering my thinking about this and for insightful comments on an earlier draft.

Central Inspection Group gives feedback to the Supreme People’s Court (2020 edition)

Photo of CIG feedback meeting

In September, 2019, this blog reported that Central Inspection Group (CIG) #4 would inspect the work of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Party Group for approximately two months.  On 10 January 2020, Chinese media reported on CIG #4’s feedback to the SPC’s Party group. The summary and brief analysis below is based on the press release published in state media, rather than the full report given to the SPC.  Palpably better judicial transparency does not include Party documents of this nature. This process signals to the world outside of China that the SPC has a different role in the Chinese political system from the supreme courts of other major jurisdictions.

Chen Xi, Politburo Member, head of the Organization Department, and deputy head of the Leading Small Group on Central Inspections chaired the meeting. In the audience was: the head of the CIG #4 Group and its leader; members of the supervision office ( 监督检查室) of the CCDI/National Supervision Commission, leaders from relevant bureaus of the Party Organizational Department, leaders from the CCDI/Supervision Commission office stationed at the SPC, leaders of the SPC, and other responsible persons from the SPC. The results and the recommendations of what needs to be improved, as in 2017, were conveyed to the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The inspection group found that:

the study and implementation of Xi Jinping’s new era of socialist thinking with Chinese characteristics are not deep enough, the implementation of the Party’s line, direction, and policies and the Party’s central decision-making and deployment were not satisfactory.  There is insufficient focus on Party political construction;  the strengthening of political ideology and professional ethics of the cadre team (加强干部队伍思想政治和职业道德建设还不够到位) is not satisfactory; it insufficiently fulfills the duties and mission of the state’s highest judicial organ (履行国家最高审判机关职责使命还不够). The requirements of “justice for the people and fair justice” have not fully penetrated the entire court work process.   In every aspect, the trial management system and the supervision mechanism for the operation of judicial power are incomplete (各方面,审判管理体制和审判权力运行监督机制还不够健全完善). The strict implementation of the Party’s main responsibilities has not been put in place in a comprehensive manner, and minor problems are ignored; there are still problems with violations of the spirit of the Central Eight Point Regulations. There are still gaps in implementing the Party’s organizational policies for the New Era; leadership building and cadre construction are not in place. Party-building work of the institution and at the basic level is weak. Issues identified in the last inspection have not been corrected and corrective mechanisms are not in place.

In 2017, the CIG found: “four consciousnesses” need to be further strengthened; political discipline and political rules are not implemented strictly enough; the leadership role of the Party group is insufficiently developed;  there are some gaps in the coordination of the advancement of the system of judicial system reform; the implementation of responsibility system for ideological attitude (意识形态责任制落实不够有力); there are weak links in Party construction; organizational construction is not systematic enough; internal Party political life is not strict enough; relevance of ideological-political work is not strong; some Party leading cadres’ Party thinking is diluted (有的党员领导干部党的观念淡漠); the role of the basic level Party organization as a fighting fortress is insufficient; comprehensive strict governance of the Party is not strong, the implementation of the central eight-point regulations is not strict enough; formalism and bureaucratic issues still exist; tourism using public funds, abuse of allowances and subsidies still occurs; personnel selection is not standardized; cadre management is not strict enough; there are some areas of clean government risk.

This report revealed that some information involving leaders had been referred to the CCDI/National Supervision Commission, Party’s Organization Department, and other departments for further handling. The 2017 report contained similar language as well.

Chen Xi made demands of Zhou Qiang and other members of the SPC Party leadership. Among those is to implement the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the courts, strengthen its “service and guarantees” to the work of the Party and state (see my 2019 article on one aspect), and implement judicial reforms. One of the demands he made with significant practical significance (flagged by a Wechat account popular among judges) is for measures for SPC judges (and likely lower court judges as well) that further restrict the employment of judges who have resigned and stricter conflict of interest rules for relatives of judges who are lawyers. [It is unclear whether these future measures will slow the resignation of SPC (or lower court) judges.]

He called upon the Party Group to raise their political position (提高政治站位) and arm their brains with Xi Jinping New Era Socialism with Chinese Characteristics thinking (用习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想武装头脑–a current slogan, for those not aware of recent developments).

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For the outside observer, handicapped by a limited ability to decode Party jargon, the summary of the feedback raises many questions but also provides insights.

Although the feedback appears to be devastating criticism of the SPC, a quick comparison to CIG feedback to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Ministry of Justice indicates that the language (at least in the press reports) is standard for CIG feedback to Party and state institutions. It thus provides insights into the thinking of the political leadership about how it views the law and legal institutions, including the courts.  It appears to treat the SPC as just another Party/state institution to be inspected.

Part of current Party policy seeks to bolster domestic and international confidence in the SPC and the lower courts.  At the same time, this press release describes the SPC as insufficiently fulfilling the duties and mission of the state’s highest judicial organ, and that some of its operations are inadequate.  No specific examples are provided. What are the qualifications of the CIG members to make this decision and what type of evaluation mechanism have they used?  What will be the impact of this feedback within the institution, within the Chinese legal community, and on the views of people in and outside of China towards the SPC?

The feedback also reveals continuing concern about Party building, political ideology, the Party thinking of senior SPC personnel, and implementation of Party policy.  It can be seen from my recent blogpost that SPC leaders seek to craft their policies, actions, initiatives, and other decisions to hit the target of being politically correct (post 19th Party Congress and post 4th Plenum) while being “problem-oriented” (坚持问题导向) that is, addressing relevant practical issues facing the court system.  The practical issues facing the court system are primarily civil disputes. We do not have overall statistics for the number of cases in the Chinese courts in 2019, but if the Shenzhen courts are any indication, the number of cases they accepted increased by 24%, with most of the cases being civil or commercial disputes. That means a substantial part of the work of the SPC must be directed towards creating a framework for dispute resolution in which domestic (and international) civil and commercial litigants can have greater trust.

 

Challenges for Supreme People’s Court leaders in the new era

Screenshot 2019-12-21 at 2.07.48 PMOne of the little-discussed aspects of being in a leadership role in the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in the New Era is ensuring that policies, actions, initiatives, and other decisions hit the target of being politically correct (post 19th Party Congress and post 4th Plenum) while being “problem-oriented” (坚持问题导向) that is, addressing relevant practical issues facing the court system.  This is true for President Zhou Qiang as well as the vice presidents (each of whom is responsible for several divisions (主管), according to bureaucratic principles), the division heads, deputy heads, and equivalents in the affiliated institutions of the SPC, whether they be the circuit courts, National Judges College, or the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence (CIAJ).

After the recent Central Economic Work Conference, Party Secretary and President Zhou Qiang convened a meeting of the SPC’s Party Committee, to discuss the implications for the courts, all of which appear to be the major initiatives of the SPC.  I have added numbers and deleted some provisions (translation thanks to Google translate). He said:

We must:

  1. deepen the comprehensive supporting reforms of the judicial system;
  2. vigorously promote the construction of smart courts;
  3. continuously improve the quality and efficiency of court work, and create a stable, fair, transparent, and predictable business environment for the rule of law.
  4. continue to strengthen judicial protection of intellectual property rights and intellectual property rights;
  5. improve the rule of law environment that supports the development of private economy, implement comprehensive, legal, and equal protection of property rights, protect the legitimate rights and interests of private enterprises and entrepreneurs in accordance with the law, and allow entrepreneurs to concentrate on starting a business..and operating with peace of mind.
  6. It is necessary to increase the judicial protection of intellectual property rights and provide strong judicial services and guarantees for the implementation of the innovation-driven development strategy. It is necessary to serve to ensure the healthy and rapid development of the digital economy, handle the relationship between the protection of digital rights and the development of the digital economy, protect personal information in accordance with the law, properly handle legal issues related to the digital economy platform, and better serve and guarantee the development of the digital economy.
  7. …Strengthen research on new situations and issues in the economic and financial field; do a good job in financial and bankruptcy trials; and effectively improve capacity of the people’s courts in risk prevention and resolution.
  8.  …It is necessary to serve a high level of opening up to the outside world, strengthen foreign-related commercial and maritime trials, protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese and foreign parties on an equal basis in accordance with the law, and provide powerful judicial services and guarantees for a wider, wider, and deeper opening.
  9. It is necessary to severely punish crimes in accordance with the law, actively participate in the special struggle to combat crime and eliminate evil, resolutely safeguard national security and social stability….

So what more specific measures hit the target? They include the following:

  • In November, Vice President Luo Dongchuan, when he made comments at the SPC Intellectual Property Court (Tribunal) on establishing a diversified technical fact investigation mechanism–see the language  in the Chinese version of the article (“raise political stance, fully recognize the importance of establishing and perfecting a technical fact investigation mechanism 罗东川强调,要提高政治站位,充分认识建立健全多元化技术事实查明机制的重要意义);
  • In December, Vice President Jiang Bixin, said such measures included improving environmental protection of the Yellow River Basin and high-quality development;
  • In December, head of the administrative division, Judge Huang Yongwei (mentioned on this blog when he was president of the National Judges College), said it included the judicial interpretation on administrative agreements, which he characterized as “having a positive effect on effectively protecting the legitimate rights and interests of the people in administrative agreements, advancing the government of the rule of law, building a credible government, optimizing the rule of law to do business, improving the ability of government administration, and advancing administrative trials in the people’s courts.”
  • For Yang Yongqing, deputy head of the #2 Civil Division, and one of the drafters of the recently promulgated 9th Civil and Commercial Trial Work Conference Summary (draft discussed here, the Conference Summary to be discussed in a future blogpost) (and Cao Shibin, head of the CIAJ, it meant going to one of the provincial courts to give lectures on civil and commercial issues.  Judge Yang explained what the conference summary means for trying cases involving a company that has provided security to a third party, as well as cases involving applications for relief by third parties.  Cao spoke on “Ethics and Judgment -Application of Judicial Reasoning in Civil and Commercial Trial Work”, starting from the challenges and difficulties facing the profession of judges.
  • Jiang Huiling, vice president of the National Judges College (NJC), in charge since Judge Hu Yunteng has retired: in November he addressed what implementing the 4th Plenum decision means for the NJC: “continuously promoting the modernization of education and training systems and education and training capabilities. The NJC should effectively translate its efforts into practical actions to promote development, gather the wisdom of all faculty and staff, study and judge the situation, … study in-depth the implications of constructing an “international first-class judicial institution (建设‘国际一流司法学府’)” [the goal that President Zhou Qiang has set for the National Judges College in its new five-year plan).”

This critic will “stay out of the region of immediate practice” (quote of Matthew Arnold, see a screenshot of a caricature that was one of my (late) father’s favorites).

 

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SPC Updates its Guidance on Judicial (Adjudication) Committees

2016 meeting of SPC judicial committee, to which NPC, CPCC representatives, and certain experts were invited

On 22 September the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) updated its guidance to the lower courts on judicial committees (关于健全完善人民法院审判委员会工作机制的意见). (also translated as “adjudication committees”) (审判委员会). For those new to this blog, these committees are made up of certain senior members of a court, and they have special decision-making authority, as detailed below. They decide cases that are too difficult or important for an individual judge or judicial panel to decide, to ensure the optimal substantive result (as seen from the institutional perspective of the courts).

The document is a policy document (explained here), as indicated by its document number 法发〔2019〕20号). Lower courts (and the specialized courts) can issue further detailed guidance, have in the past and will do so.  In 2010 the SPC issued guidance on judicial committees (2010 guidance), which I analyzed in this article, Reforming-judicial-committees.  The article includes some insights from a number of judges with whom I spoke at the time.  Reforming judicial committees has been on the SPC’s agenda since the prior round of judicial reforms, as my 2014 blogpost discusses. I predicted that reform would occur “in the medium term.”  There are is a great deal of writing about judicial committees in English and especially in Chinese.  My 2014 blogpost links to some of the English language research, and other insights about how judicial committees work can be found in Embedded Courts, the prize-winning book by NG Kwai Hang and He Xin.

The broad consensus on judicial committee reform can be seen in Articles 36-39 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts, as amended in 2018 (2018 People’s Courts Law), but the 2019 guidance sets out more detailed rules.

This blogpost will highlight some of the issues that come to mind in a quick review.

A quick list of what is new follows:

  • There are some changes in the format of SPC Opinions (意见) so that it is usual for them to begin with a list of basic principles.
  • As to be expected, Party leadership and related principles are listed at the top of both the 2019 and 2010 guidance.  Both stress upholding Party leadership of the work of the people’s courts, with the 2019 guidance referring to “upholding the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the people’s courts.”  This should not at all be surprising, as the phrase has been used repeatedly since the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference. The Party Regulations on Political-Legal Work use the phrase “Party’s absolute leadership.” As I mentioned earlier this year, Li Ling (of the University of Vienna) sees this as indicating a complete and unambivalent severance from the judicial independence framework.
  • On membership of judicial committees, The 2018 People’s Courts Law and the new guidance retain the old system of having the court president and vice-presidents, but no longer requires division heads (庭长) to be members, but refers to “experienced”(资深) judges and to the possibility of having full-time members.  The  SPC already does this.  Justices Hu Yunteng, Liu Guixiang, Pei Xianding, and He Xiaorong are full-time members of the judicial committee, which gives them a bureaucratic rank equivalent to being an SPC vice president, with attendant privileges. It is likely that the Central Staffing Commission regulates the number of persons who can be SPC vice presidents.  Judging by the SPC website, some SPC judicial committee members are not SPC Party Group members, although of course there is some overlap.
  • Another innovation in the 2018 People’s Courts Law, repeated in the 2019 guidance, is having specialized judicial committees, to focus on more specialized issues, and to deal with the problem of having non-specialist judges making decisions on issues regarding which they are not familiar.  This provision consolidates ongoing practice in both the SPC and lower courts  My understanding is that the Shenzhen Intermediate Court was one of the earlier courts to establish specialist judicial committees.  The roots of this innovation lie in the 2004-2008 Second Judicial Reform Five Year Plan Outline. (This also illustrates the time it takes for some judicial reforms to be adopted.)
  • On the functions of judicial committees, new language mentions “sensitive, major, and difficult cases such as those involving national security, diplomacy, or social stability.”  That language is new as compared to the 2010 guidance.  It is not new to the SPC, as it appears in the SPC’s 2017 judicial responsibility regulations, about which I wrote.  I surmise that this is just spelling out what had been the general practice.   Most of the other functions are consistent with previous guidance.
  • The operational language is more detailed than before and gives a glimpse into the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese court system ( a collegial panel or single judge who thinks a case should go to the judicial committee  “submit an application and report it up to the court president for approval level by level; and where an application is not submitted, but the court president finds it necessary, they may request that the adjudication committee deliberate and make a decision. The language enabling a court president to designate a case for judicial committee discussion likely represents a consolidation of practice, rather than something new.
  • Other procedures in the operational section are new, reflecting the new institution of the professional judges committee and much more specific requirements concerning the content of the report that the judges are required to prepare for the judicial committee, including arguments by both/all parties, prosecution/defense counsel and a clear listing of the issues on the application of law that require discussion and decision by the adjudication committee, the opinions of the professional (presiding) judges meeting. In a clear signal about how the SPC sees the importance of case research, it also requires judges preparing these reports to search for similar or related cases.
  • The 2019 guidance requires judicial committee members with a conflict to recuse themselves  (the language is unclear about whether a party can apply to do that).  This is new, and reflects many years of criticism of the failure to have a recusal mechanism.
  • The 2019 guidance also imposes a quorum requirement on judicial committee meetings, both the plenary and specialized committee meetings. Certain outsiders (people’s congress delegates, scholars, etc) may attend, as well as the chief procurator at the same level or his delegate (this latter provision is not new).
  • Decisions are made by at least half of the members attending and dissenting opinions must be recorded in the case file. It does not mention that dissenting opinions will be mentioned in the judgment issued to the parties and the public. As before, the decision of the judicial committee is binding on the judge or judges who heard the case (principle of democratic centralism).
  •  The 2018 People’s Court Law and new guidance require the decision and reasoning in cases discussed by the adjudication committee to be disclosed in the judgment documents unless the law provides otherwise, so a significant step forward in judicial committee transparency.  The lack of judicial committee transparency had been criticized for many years.
  • Judicial committees at all levels of the courts are now required to create an audio or visual recording of the entire process of judicial committee meetings and keep them confidential. Judicial committee proceedings are required to be incorporated in a court’s caseflow management system. It is not clear from the guidance who or which entity would have access.
  • Those not involved in judicial committee proceedings (outside leaders, senior judges not involved) are forbidden from involving themselves in judicial committee proceedings.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.
  • Similarly, the language in the 2019 rules on judicial committee members and other maintaining confidentiality and work discipline, and not leaking trial work secrets (I discuss this in my article published earlier this year.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.

Although for many years proposals have been made to abolish the judicial committee, I have rarely heard anyone who has worked in the Chinese judicial system agree with that proposal.  It seems more likely that the SPC thinking is maintaining the judicial committee system is appropriate for China at this time, given the level of professionalism nationwide, the need to share/avoid responsibility for making difficult decisions, and the greater political environment.  This guidance appears to be designed to deal with some of the abuses of the judicial committee system, have greater (but not complete) transparency, incorporate new court institutions, and generally improve how the committees operate.

 

Central Inspection Group inspecting the Supreme People’s Court (again)

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Mobilization meeting for the Central Inspection Group’s inspection of the SPC

This week the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s ) media outlets are carrying this 10 September report of the Central Inspection Group (CIG) #4’s mobilization meeting to inspect the SPC’s Communist Party group.  The same group is also inspecting the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP). Senior leaders (that with a bureaucratic rank of deputy bureau chief and above 副局级以上干部) of the SPC and its institutions attended in person (as well as related personnel). Those in the SPC’s six circuit courts  (巡回法庭) attended by videolink.  Zhao Fengtong is heading  (this English biography is outdated) the inspection group. He gave a speech at the mobilization meeting. President Zhou Qiang, who chaired the meeting, spoke as well. A search of Caixin’s website reveals that Zhao Fengtong has headed many such inspection groups. News of the inspection was announced on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) website last week and other media outlets. The inspection is part of the current round of CIG inspections, which total 37 Party, government, and other entities.  A CIG group last inspected the SPC almost three years ago. The previous mobilization meeting and inspector results were previously mentioned on this blog.

The China Law Society (a mass (government-organized non-government organization)) and the Ministry of Justice are being inspected in this round of inspections. Each has held its own mobilization meeting.

The inspection appears to be one example of the strengthening of Party leadership in the SPC. The inspection appears to be linked to language in earlier documents to strengthen the leadership of the Communist Party (加强党的领导) and to strengthen Party political construction (党的政治建设).  The Party Center issued a document on political construction earlier this year.

The remarks that Zhao Fengtong made are consistent with the document on political construction. Some of the points that Zhao Fengtong and Zhou Qiang made are highlighted below (along with my brief comments in italics):

  • the SPC, as a central organ, assumes a major political responsibility and glorious historical mission (重大政治责任和历史使命).  This phrase is to be found in SPC policy documents supporting important government initiatives;
  • Inspections are political supervision and a comprehensive political examination of the implementation by the Party Group of a Central and national organ of its political responsibility and duties (巡视是政治监督,是对中央和国家机关党组织履行政治责任和职责使命情况的全面政治体检). The term “political inspection” appears to be used frequently since earlier this year–the report on the previous mobilization meeting did not use this term.
  • The focus is on inspecting how the SPC is implementing the Party line, direction and policies and the major decisions that the Party Center has announced (重点监督检查落实党的路线方针政策和党中央重大决策部署情况);
  • The inspection will search out political deviance (深入查找政治偏差).  This phrase is found in the document on political construction–“put efforts into discovering and correcting political deviation” (着力发现和纠正政治偏差).

President Zhou Qiang stated that the Party group fully supports the work of the inspection group, will correct the problems found, will not delay or blame.  He mentioned that the institution will combine support for the work of the inspection group with current work (要把配合做好巡视工作与抓好当前工作结合起来).  The SPC is a court, to whom the public looks for justice. Informal inquiries indicate that the SPC has an even larger civil and commercial caseload this year.  Although earlier this year it raised the minimum amount in dispute for cases that it will take, the current state of the economy means that the SPC is facing a large increase in civil/commercial disputes. Domestic cases have a six-month deadline for resolution, placing a great deal of pressure on judges to resolve them timely, either by encouraging settlement or issuing judgments (or rulings).  

As in the previous round, the CIG is inspecting the SPC for approximately two months. The inspection group has provided an email and telephone number for those wishing to provide further information.

Background on CIGs and how they operate can be found in a 2016 New York Times article (focusing on the Ministry of Public Security’s inspection) and this scholarly article by Professor Fu Hualing of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty.