Why the Supreme People’s Court is lobbying National People’s Congress Delegates?

Deputy court president in Ningbo, December, 2011

Deputy Court president in Ningbo, December, 2011

Since the end of Third Plenum in November, senior Supreme People’s Court (Court) officials have been racking up airmiles, traveling all over China to meet with National People’s Congress (NPC) and  Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) representatives.  Over forty meetings have been held over the past year. Although Court officials had met with NPC and CPPCC delegates in previous years, it is apparent that these meetings are taking on special significance this year. This blogpost will explain what occurs at these meetings and the rationale for having them.  It also illustrates one of the skills that an effective court president needs in China.

In recent months, senior Court officials, primarily the Court vice presidents, have traveled to the four corners of China, from Gansu to Guangxi and from Jilin to Yunnan. Zhou Qiang has also met with Beijing based delegates.

The stated purpose of these meetings is to “listen” (听取) (and respond) to the views and suggestions of NPC and CCPCC delegates. Court officials have either released to NPC and CPCC delegates a copy of the Court draft work report or summarized the developments in the courts in 2013 and plans for 2014.  Some meetings apparently involved more substance than others.  The meeting with Shanghai delegates, which included a leading law firm partner as well as the general manager of Shanghai Electric (listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange) raised the issues of:

  • quality of judicial personnel;
  • increasing judicial independence;
  • resolving local protectionism;
  • having more witnesses appear in court; and
  • cross-examination.

It is apparent from the extensive reports on these meetings that Zhou Qiang is taking a tactical approach to these meetings.  As the former governor of Hunan, former Party Secretary of Hunan and director of the Standing Committee of the Hunan People’s Congress, he has extensive experience in dealing with people’s congress and consultative congress deputies.

It appears that the rationale Zhou Qiang (and colleagues) have for these meetings is two-fold.  First, it is to diffuse criticism of the Court (and the work of the lower courts) at the upcoming NPC session and incorporate frequently issues into either the final version of the Court Work Report or the 2014 Court agenda.   The large number of votes against the 2013 Court Work Report was seen as a loss of face and it is likely that Court leadership wants to avoid that.

The second reason Zhou Qiang has for closely liaising with NPC delegates is to lay the groundwork for implementing  court reforms.  If the Court is able to obtain support for overhauling the structure for the funding of courts and appointment of judges at the local level (as foreseen by the Third Plenum Decision) this reform will require that the NPC amend the basic statute for the court system, the Organizational Law of the People’s Courts (人民法院组织法) and will  require NPC delegates support the reforms in large numbers.

Zhou Qiang listening to Hunan provincial people's congress delegates, 2011

Zhou Qiang listening to Hunan provincial people’s congress delegates, 2011

The Supreme People’s Court: Reforming the Chinese courts the Party Way

On April 8, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court announced that its Communist Party (Party) Committee was implementing an  “educational movement to improve judicial work style” (judicial work style movement)  in the second quarter of 2013. Zhou Qiang, the newly appointed president of the Supreme People’s Court, is also the head of its Party Committee.

This clunkily named announcement, written in densely packed Party jargon, is has critical implications for the Chinese court system and all those affected by it, domestic and foreign.  Unpacking the announcement requires a Chinese political jargon decoder and a strong cup of coffee.

This posting will explain why the announcement is so important by highlighting:

  • The meaning of an “educational movement” and “judicial work style.”
  • The impetus for the movement.
  • The goals of the movement.
  • How will it be done?
  • What are its implications?

What is an “educational movement” and  “judicial work style”?

Both phrases are frequently used in Chinese political jargon.

  • An “educational movement”  refers to a political initiative with both educational and punitive aspects, focused on correcting certain ways of thinking while “work style” means the standards of conduct of officials.
  • Work style issues cover a broad range of activity, from deciding cases to womanizing, to luxurious banquets.

Impetus for the movement:

At the 18th Party Congress, the Communist Party leadership identified “judicial credibility” (司法公信力) as a critical area for improvement because of its political implications, particularly the profound loss of confidence in the ability of the Chinese judiciary to provide competent and fair justice.  This was symbolized by the vote  by 20% of National People’s Congress deputies against the Work Report of the Supreme People’s Court.

Goals of the movement:

As announced by the Court’s Party Committee, this education movement has the following goals:

  • Implement the ideal that justice is for the people, so that litigants will not feel they are despised;
  • Decide cases according to law, so that litigants will feel that justice has been done;
  • Improve judicial responsibility, so that judicial laziness, delays, indifference, arbitrariness, failure to hear both sides, and gross errors are avoided.
  • Improve judicial self-discipline and establish a clean judiciary, stop cases decided by money, connections, and sympathies.

Implementing the movement

The Court has called on the lower courts to implement the movement by the following:

  • Study relevant Party and Court documents;
  • Have court leadership take responsibility for implementing the required measures;
  • Implement appropriate internal systems to avoid conflicts of interests, institute training and monitoring programs;
  • Analyze issues in each local court, taking account of the views of various parts of society, identify the weak spots in the judicial system and evolve effective means to deal with them;
  • Use good and bad examples, including instances of judicial irresponsibility and other judicial action that harms judicial prestige;
  • Stop major abuses in the courts, such as taking gifts and money, using court vehicles for private business, using judicial posts to engage in business, and lavish eating and entertainment at public expense.  Violators should be exposed, ordered to change, and if they do not, be dealt with.

What does this educational movement mean?

The implementation of this “educational movement” means that Party leadership recognizes that corruption and abuses in the court system are causing dissatisfaction and resentment among a substantial number of Chinese citizens, including among the political and business elite, and the leadership has called on the new Court leadership to do something about it. The Court leadership recognizes (more than any outside observer) that the Chinese judiciary often delivers a poor quality of justice, but that the issues are different in different parts of the country and even within the same city or province.

What may result from this “educational movement”?

  • Expect a spate of judicial scandals to hit the Chinese media and blogosphere.
  • Behind the scenes there may be a pushback from lower court judges, who feel they cannot make ends meet if they are honest.
  • Expect greater engagement between the Supreme People’s Court and the outside legal world, including greater dialogue between the courts and other parts of the legal profession in China, such as lawyers and academics in evolving reforms.  President Zhou Qiang has led the way by holding a meeting with leading academics and lawyers in late April.
  • Because this educational movement does not deal with the structural issues that have created the conditions under which judicial abuses flourish, expect incremental institutional changes to be gradually rolled out in the next few years.