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.