Signals in Zhou Qiang’s 2017 NPC Report (Part 1)

Most people who have commented (outside of China) on Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March, 2017 report (on 2016 work) to the National People’s Congress (NPC) didn’t have the patience to read (or listen) much beyond the initial section, which mentions the conviction of Zhou Shifeng as indicating that the courts are doing their part to crack down on state subversion.  It appears to be another in a series of colorless government reports.  But for those with the ability (or at least the patience) to decode this report, it provides insights into the Chinese courts, economy, and society.

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The report, which went through 34 drafts, is intended to send multiple signals to multiple institutions, particularly the political leadership, in the months before the 19th Party Congress.

According to a report on how the report was drafted, the drafting group (which communicated through a Wechat group to avoid time-consuming bureaucratic procedures) faced the issue of how to summarize the work of the People’s Court in 2016 correctly.  The guidance from President Zhou on the report–it must:

  1. fully embody the upholding of Party leadership, that court functions (审判职) must serve the Party and country’s overall situation;
  2. embody the new spirit of reform, showing the (positive)impact of judicial reform on the courts and show the ordinary people what they have gained;
  3. not avoid the mention of problems, but indicate that they can be resolved through reform.

Underneath these political principles, the operation of a court system with Chinese characteristics is visible.

A partial decoding of the report reveals the points listed below (to be continued in Part 2).

1. Caseload on the rise

The caseload in the Chinese courts continues to rise significantly, at the same time that headcount in the courts is being reduced.  Diversified dispute resolution (the jargon outside of China is alternative dispute resolution) is being stressed.

  • SPC itself is dealing with a massive increase in its cases, 42.6% higher than 2016, and that number was significantly higher than 2015.
    Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 4.07.25 PM.png

    2016, SPC cases accepted 22,742, up 42.3%, concluded 20151, 42.6%, Circuit Cts #1 & 2 accepted 4721 cases in last 2 yrs, resolved 4573 cases

     

The statistics on the SPC’s caseload are not broken down further, but are understood to be mostly civil, commercial, and administrative.  It appears from a search of one of the case databases that not all of the SPC judgments or rulings have been published (a search of one of the judgment databases showed 6600+, and only some of the death penalty approvals). It seems also that the database does not include SPC cases such as the judicial review of certain foreign and foreign-related arbitration awards.

Although the report does not focus on the reasons for the massive increase in SPC cases, careful observation reveals the following reasons:

  • establishment of the circuit courts, hearing more cases and ruling on applications for retrials;
  • increase in the number of civil and commercial cases with large amounts in dispute;
  • SPC itself has implemented the case registration system; and
  • changes in law giving litigants rights where none previously existed.

The report also mentioned that 29 judicial interpretations were issued (some analyzed on this blog) and that 21 guiding cases were issued.  Model cases and judicial policy documents were not separately set out, although some were listed in the appendix to the SPC report distributed to delegates.

Lower courts

23,030,000 cases accepted by lower courts, up 18%, cases resolved, 19,773,000; amounts in dispute up 23%

The pie chart below sets out the statistical distribution of cases heard by the Chinese courts:

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 9.59.06 PMThe pie chart of cases heard, enforced and closed in 2016 shows:

  • about 60% of those cases were civil, commercial, or intellectual property cases;
  • 6.41% criminal cases,
  • 3.40% parole, sentence reduction cases;
  • almost 26% enforcement cases,
  • .03% state compensation cases,
  • petition or application for retrial, .91%;
  • and 1.66% administrative cases.

Although the stress in Zhou Qiang’s report is placed on law and order, in fact many more cases in the Chinese courts are civil and commercial rather than criminal.

2. Social stability, public order, law & order are major concerns

Criminal cases have a prominent place in the report, although the data reveals a slight increase in the number of cases  (1.5%), involving the conviction of 1,220,000 people, down 1%. (Note that many minor offenses are punished by the police, with no court procedures).

Although the report mentioned the Zhou Shifeng case (state security) and criminal punishment of terrorist and cult crimes, it did not release statistics on the number of cases of any of these crimes heard.  Corruption cases totaled 45,000 cases, involving 63,000 persons.  Violent crimes (murder, robbery, theft) cases 226,000. Drug cases: 118,000, a significant decrease from 2015. 2016 cases of human trafficking and  sexual assault on women and children totaled 5335, while telecommunications fraud cases in 2016 totaled 1726.  Only 213 cases involving schoolyard bullying were heard and the SPC revealed that the drafting of a judicial interpretation on the subject is underway. The report highlighted some of the well-known criminal cases, including the insider trading case against Xu Xiang and the Kuai Bo obscenity cases to illustrate and criminal law-related judicial interpretations to signal that the courts are serving policy needs in punishing crime.

The same section described what has been done in 2016 to correct mistaken cases, highlighting the Nie Shubin case (reheard by Judge Hu Yuteng and colleagues) as an example.  The report revealed that the local courts retried only 1376 criminal petition cases, likely a tiny fraction of the criminal petitions submitted.

3. Maintain economic development

As President Zhou Qiang indicated, the way that the Chinese courts operate is Party/government policy-driven (they must serve the greater situation). Serving the greater situation meant, in 2016, that the Chinese courts heard 4,026,000 first instance commercial cases, a 20.3% increase year on year.  He also mentioned the 3373 bankruptcy cases analyzed in an earlier blogpost. Of those 4 million commercial cases, 1,248,000 involved securities, futures, insurance, and commercial paper and 255,000 real estate cases and 318,000 rural land disputes. Other implications are discussed below.

This section of the report devoted a paragraph to a topic discussed last year on this blog: the courts serving major government strategies, including One Belt One Road, the Yangtze River Belt, and Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei coordinated development.

Green development , intellectual property (IPR), property rights (of private entrepreneurs), serving maritime and major country strategy, socialist core values, judicial solutions to new problems and cross-border assistance also merited mention in this section.

  1. The courts heard 133,000 environmental and natural resources cases, with Fujian, Jiangxi and Guizhou courts designated as experimental environmental courts.  While public interest environmental and procuratorate brought (environmental) cases were mentioned, statistics were not set out.
  2. First instance IPR cases totaled 147,000, with several cities (Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuhan, and Chengdu) establishing IPR divisions to take cases across administrative boundaries. This section mentioned the Jordan trademark case and the IPR courts.
  3. On protection of property rights, the report mentioned some of the documents intended to protect private entrepreneurs discussed on this blog, as well as 10 model cases.
  4. On maritime and cross-border cases, the report mentions the judicial interpretations on maritime jurisdiction (discussed in this blogpost), intended to support the government’s maritime policy, including in the South China Sea.  The Chinese courts heard only 6899 commercial cases involving foreign parties (this means that of the 2016 19,200 civil and commercial cases mentioned by Judge Zhang Yongjian, most must have been civil) and 16,000 maritime cases. The report again mentions making China a maritime judicial center, further explained in my 2016 article.
  5. On the relevance of socialist core values to the courts, that is meant to incorporate socialist core values into law (although they should be understood to have always to be there) and to give the Langya Heroes special protection under China’s evolving defamation law.
  6. Judicial solutions to new issues included internet related issues, including e-commerce cases, internet finance cases, and theft of mobile data; the first surrogacy case, and judicial recommendations to Party and government organizations.
  7. In the section on international cooperation, President Zhou Qiang revealed that fewer than 3000 cases involving mutual judicial assistance were handled. The bureaucratic and lengthy procedures for judicial assistance in commercial cases has long been an issue for lawyers and other legal professional outside of China.  This is likely to change (in the long run, as Chinese courts increasingly seek to obtain evidence from abroad).  US-China dialogue on bankruptcy issues and cooperation with One Belt One Road countries (cases involving these countries are increasing significantly), were also mentioned here.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Supreme People’s Court & foreign-related disputes

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Judge Zhang Yongjian, chief judge of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s #4 Civil Division (responsible for foreign, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan related commercial issues) previously featured on this blog, gave an interview to Legal Daily on the sidelines of the NPC meeting. This quick blogpost sets out some of the useful information from the interview:

He provided some data on the number of cross border cases:

  • Total number of foreign-related cases of all types (first, second instance, retrial, enforcement) heard and resolved: 25900, up 9.38%, among which 1061 were criminal,19200 civil and 3629 administrative, and about 2000 enforcement cases. The civil and commercial cases increased almost 11% compared to last year and accounted for about 75% of all foreign-related cases.
  • Total number of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan related civil and commercial cases closed: 27053 civil and commercial cases, Judge Zhang said that they accounted for 85% of all cases involving “greater China.”

The cases coming before the Chinese courts differ from the old trading and joint venture disputes, with many more cases involving demand guarantees, international factoring, private equity funds, stock options in companies listed overseas listed companies, cross-border telecommunications (fraud?), bonded trade disputes.

(As this observer has previously predicted), the number of cases related to One Belt One Road (OBOR) is increasing relatively quickly, while the number involving the United States, Britain, Germany, are decline. Cross-border project contracting and international logistics related cases are on the increase, as well as foreign-related intellectual property cases and maritime cases. Although Judge Zhang did not say so, it appears that many of these disputes are related to Chinese companies going out as well as OBOR, and may reflect inadequate documentation of the projects. The increase in maritime cases is linked to the ongoing decline in the shipping industry.  Chinese maritime courts have heard cases related to the Hanjin bankruptcy as well as large numbers of cases involving ship crew.

Challenges for the Chinese courts in hearing cross border cases:  encountering many “blank spaces” in Chinese legislation; conflict of laws with neighboring countries.  Other ongoing bottlenecks for Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases–service of process to overseas parties; obtaining evidence crossborder; determining facts that have occurred abroad; determining and applying foreign law.

Judge Zhang highlighted the solutions for the Chinese courts in dealing with the difficulties:

  • SPC issuing judicial interpretations and other judicial guidance;
  • establishing a case guidance and reference system for the lower courts, including model cases, guiding cases, and selected cases (i.e. as selected by the SPC), to guide and limit judges’ discretion.
  • The SPC selecting some commercial cases (relating to free trade zones, internet finance, cross border investment financing) with an international impact as a model.
  • To enable correct and just hearing of cases, the higher and lower courts should be in touch in a timely matter and establish a system for supervision before, during and after a case. [What this means for judicial autonomy in hearing cases and the appeal system is not said.]
  • On the goals for 2017, those include establishing an OBOR dispute resolution center (推进设立“一带一路”争端解决中心的建立,促进“一带一路”建设). This is likely linked to the May, 2017 OBOR Conference to be held in Beijing.  Judge Zhang did not further specify, but it seems unlikely to mean establishing China’s own investment dispute resolution center. Perhaps this means increasing the role of Chinese courts in hearing cross-border cases involving OBOR jurisdictions.

Judge Zhang mentioned that he and his colleagues in 2017 have a variety of difficult issues that will be the subject of judicial interpretations or policy documents. This observer hopes that they will find it appropriate to consult the international legal community when drafting the following judicial interpretations that are on their agenda:

  • Enforcement of foreign civil and commercial judgments (possibly related the the Judgments Convention being negotiated under the auspices of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, and in the near term, to the enforcement of judgments through mutual judicial assistance treaties;
  • cross-border guarantees;
  • labor issues for ship crew;
  • damages in marine environmental cases;
  • jurisdiction in foreign-related cases, particularly civil and commercial cases;
  • judicial review of arbitration (this has been signalled for at least two years).

Judge Zhang signalled that they want to establish an English language website on foreign-related civil and commercial matters.  It is hoped that this new website will post information in a more timely manner than the current SPC English language website. An (unsolicited) recommendation is to hire an expatriate editor (similar to Xinhua and other Chinese media outlets) to assist in delivering content that meets institutional requirements and interests the foreign user.

All these developments relate back to one sentence in the Fourth Plenum Decision:

Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms, promote the handling of foreign-related economic and social affairs according to the law, strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs, use legal methods to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.