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

 

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Takeaways from the Supreme People’s Court 2015 work report

20160313104344_51387The Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s 2015 work report has many takeaways for different audiences.  The apparently formulaic report took five months to draft, involving comments and input by many within and outside of the SPC (this article  describes the process, as did my earlier blogpost), most likely involving clearance by the Central Leading Group on Judicial Reform.  It was drafted to show certain accomplishments, send certain signals–show that judicial reform is on the right path and is successful, particularly that the court leadership and the courts are doing their part to fulfil the tasks set for them by the Party/state leadership.  This year’s report has three sections, rather than the usual two, with one section summarizing judicial reform accomplishments. This post will focus on highlights of the overview of 2015, and leave judicial reforms and tasks for this year for another day.

In a sign that the diminished attention spans have come to China, the SPC has come up with graphic and even musical versions of the report.

Statistics to convey current message

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This short book, explaining how statistics are used to convey certain messages, was originally published in the 1950’s and translated into Chinese about 10 years ago (and given to me when I was 11 by my parents). It is a useful reference when puzzling out what SPC court statistics are saying and mean, because as this  Wall Street Journal article noted, the categories used in the annual reports often shift from year to year, making comparisons difficult, and breakdowns of specific categories are generally missing. The reason for that is the report (including the statistics) are meant to harmonize with the latest government/Party policies and be on message. The SPC is reforming judicial statistics and seeking to make better use of big data, but the fine details are not in this report.

Takeaway #1–Caseload Up Significantly

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The caseload of all levels of courts were up significantly, primarily because of the docketing reforms implemented last year (mentioned here).  Civil (family, inheritance, private lending) and commercial cases account for most of the growth.

Cases heard at the Supreme People’s Court were up 42.6% compared with 2014 (accepted 15985, concluded 14,135). with most of those heard at headquarters in Beijing rather than the two circuit courts.    The local people’s courts heard 19,511,000, and concluded 16.714 million cases, with large increases  in the amounts in dispute, an increase of 24.7%, 21.1% and 54.5%, respectively. This seems to exclude cases heard in the military courts.

Performance target reforms mean that judges are no longer under enormous pressure to conclude cases by year end (although some local court officials may not been on message).

The bar chart below compares 2014 and 2015 numbers for criminal, civil, commercial, administrative, and enforcement cases respectively.Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 7.16.13 pm

Criminal and Commercial cases up–Takeaway #2

Just briefly on the criminal cases, as the overview graphic of commercial cases is linked to criminal cases-criminal cases are up by 7.5%. Significantly, criminal cases involving refusal to pay wages were up 58%, with last year’s report revealing that 753 persons were convicted, which means that 2015 convictions were close to 1200. a\Analysis of  the statistic of 1419 persons convicted of state security and terrorist crimes can be found here.

e8fade90gw1f1v665sc3uj209i0ugq6mCommercial cases were up 20% (3,347,000, with 120,000 intellectual property cases (up from 110,000 in 2014).  This is likely linked to the new intellectual property courts, but I will cede further analysis on this to my fellow blogger Mark Cohen of Chinaipr.com.  Again, tiny numbers of foreign-related (6079), but up from last year (5804) and Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan-related cases.  Cases involving subsidiaries of foreign companies are not in this category–this is a commercial case with a foreign party. The maritime courts heard 16,000 cases, the large increase apparently also attributable to the case registration system.  The language in the speech (making headlines) about making China an international maritime judicial center reflects language in previous speeches Zhou Qiang gave in China (analyzed here), but unnoticed until the NPC report.

Private lending disputes up significantly

The courts heard 1,420,000 private lending disputes, up from 1,045,600 in 2014.  Further background on private lending disputes can be found in my previous articles for the Diplomat. Last year the private lending disputes were categorized with the civil cases, rather than commercial cases.

SPC doing its part for greater government policy

The SPC issued policy documents on One Belt One Road (see this analysis of its implications), the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei area, and Yangtze River Economic Belt to implement government policies. Those strategic projects are priorities for government.

Takeaway #3 Commercial disputes

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.33.59 pm

In 2015, 1,053,000 financial disputes were heard and 100,000 insurance disputes, as well as 4238 securities fraud and insider trading cases, compared with 824,000 financial disputes in 2014, a number which included insurance cases.  This speaks to the weakness in the Chinese economy.

The bar chart to the left illustrates percentage increases in product liability (in 2014 there was also a large increase), reputation, real estate development (see this blogpost), loans, sales contracts, labor (up 21%!), and rural residential land disputes. The report flags 1400 bankruptcy cases and highlights pilot projects.

In another indication of problems with the real estate sector, Zhou Qiang mentioned “mass real estate disputes” and the expert handling by the Jinan court (in coordination with the government) of a large villa project in Jinan that encountered financial difficulties in 2008 (see this description) and led 2000 purchasers to petition in Beijing and even surround the Jinan Party Committee, Shandong Party Committee, and the Central Inspection Group that was on site. In 2014, the Shandong government decided to use “legal thinking” to involve the Jinan intermediate court.

An area for commercial lawyers to monitor is unfair competition and anti-monopoly, where the regulators are working on a stream of regulations. Last year the Chinese courts heard 1802 cases.

Takeaway #4– Big jump in civil disputes

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 5.38.32 pm

 

The pie chart on left shows the distribution of first instance civil cases–26% family (1,733,000), 1.5% inheritance, 5% ownership disputes, 17% personal rights (privacy, portrait, reputation), 22.8% private lending, 7.32% labor disputes, including 300,000 migrant worker wage arrears (and other cases related to rural residents rights (拖欠农民工工资等涉农案件 30 万件).  Consumer, education, housing and employment accounted for 720,000 cases.

For environmental cases, 78,000 civil cases were concluded, along with 19,000 criminal cases.

 

Takeaway #5 Big jump in administrative cases

The amendment of the Administrative Litigation Law last year, the docketing reforms, and the decision to push disputes off the streets and into the courtroom has been a large increase in administrative disputes, although the baseline was very low.  In 2015, 241,000 first instance administrative cases were accepted, up 59% from the year before, with 199,000 concluded.  Reforms have been undertaken to move administrative cases outside of the area in which they arise, which is another reason that some persons or entities have been willing to file.  The bar chart has the percentage increase in different types of administrative cases, with an 176% increase in education cases. The remaining categories (from the left are: public security, trademark, pharmaceutical, construction, transportation, energy, and the environment.

(Black & white charts from SPC work report, thanks to Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal).

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Supreme People’s Court president says court reforms in “deep water area”

566929On 12 March 2015, Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People’s Court (Court) delivered his work report to the NPC, putting the best face on where the Chinese courts are and where they’re going. He described court reforms as being in a “deep water area” (深水区)(a high risk area).  This blogpost will highlight issues that other commentators (outside of China) have so far missed:
  • the mismatch between the focus of the work report and the work of the courts;
  • what the work report (on other than criminal cases reveals); and
  • the challenges to the Court leadership in the year ahead.

What is the mismatch?

charts for SPC

© Tiantong & Partners; charts illustrating SPC report

The primary focus of the work report (as always) is law and order, as seen from the perspective of Communist Party leadership, particularly state security related offenses (including terrorism and “splittism”) as well as ordinary crimes.  A big difference in this year’s report is that President Zhou Qiang apologized for previous miscarriages of justice and highlighted efforts to prevent future ones.  Other commentators have already focused on these both of these important developments and and other issues related to the criminal justice system.
2014 cases in chinese courts

bar chart: 2010-2014 increase in cases resolved by courts (in 10K) Pie chart: civil/commercial/IP; admin; re-trial/govt compens/enforcement/; parole; other/criminal

What the work report reveals is that most cases heard in the Chinese courts are not criminal and that the number of cases heard by the courts is rising.

What are cases are the Chinese courts hearing?

The pie chart (distributed as an attachment to President Zhou Qiang’s report at the NPC), illustrates that over 63% of the cases heard in the Chinese courts are civil cases (including commercial, family law and intellectual property cases), not criminal. Criminal cases (including parole related cases) account for something over 10% of cases (as others have discussed, many minor offenses are handled as administrative, rather than criminal offenses).

A closer look at civil cases in the Chinese courts

 A bit of arithmetic reveals (unfortunately the authors of the Report did not set out a corresponding chart), that 34% of civil cases (2,782,000) in 2014 were commercial cases (up 8.5% year on year), while 66% were what classified as civil cases (in the narrow sense, described below).

Commercial cases:

(These cases are illustrated in the chart to the left that has the ¥ sign.)
1. Finance cases (824,000)(a broad category including various types of loans, credit cards, securities, futures, insurance etc.).
2.  Sales contracts disputes (664,000).
3.Intellectual property (110,000, up 10% year on year)(I  the detailed analysis of this can be found here, by my fellow blogger, Mark Cohen, at the ChinaIPR blog);
4. Corporate disputes (12,000) (shareholder, merger and acquisition, creditor initiated bankruptcy);
5. Maritime cases (12,000).
Foreign-related cases (5804), )these, although a focus of foreign law firms alerts and the press, are a tiny drop in the sea of Chinese civil cases.  Many cases involving foreign companies actually involve their China incorporated subsidiaries.
The number of finance cases suggests a large number of disputes relating to loans by financial institutions.

Civil cases

(These cases are illustrated in the chart that has two people standing next to one another and the pie chart below.)
2014 civil cases in the Chinese courts

2014 civil cases in the Chinese courts

In 2014,  5,228,000  civil cases were heard in the Chinese courts (up almost 6% year on year):
1.  Family law cases (1,619,000),(this category includes  contested divorces, inheritance, support cases), accounting for about 30% of civil cases. The chart above 13% year on year increase in inheritance cases (showing an increasing number of people have assets worth fighting in court over, and perhaps also inadequate estate planning).
2.  Loan cases not involving financial institutions (between individuals, company and individual, or two companies) (1,045,600), accounting for almost 20% of civil cases. (The categorization has changed, making a year on year comparison not easily possible).
3. Labor cases (374, 324), accounting for 7.16% of all civil cases.  These include appeals from labor arbitration as well as cases that can be directly brought in the courts).
4.  Environmental tort cases (3331) (up 51% year on year).
5. Product liability cases are up 44%, but the base or total number for 2014 is not set out.
6.  Cases involving rights of rural residents (219,00)(rights to rural residential land, transfer of contracted land) migrant laborers seeking unpaid wages).
7.  Construction disputes are up almost 18% (base or total number for 2014 not set out).
These numbers speak to:
1. changes to the Chinese family;
2. a large number of loans that are under the radar of the financial authorities;
3. employees who are increasingly rights conscious;
4. continued litigation risk for foreign companies doing business in China (including through subsidiaries), because as perceived “deep pockets”, Chinese litigants often target them in product liability cases.

Administrative cases

 First instance administrative cases (companies or individuals suing the government) (131,000) continue to be a tiny number, although up 8.3%, and it remains to be seen whether the amended Administrative Litigation Law (Administrative Procedure Law) will lead to an increase in cases.

 Enforcement cases

Enforcement cases (compulsory enforcement of court judgments or orders, arbitral awards, etc) account for 3,430,000, a 14% increase year on year.  This suggests that fewer people (companies) are complying with dispute resolution voluntarily.
10% increase in cases accepted (will be a challenge to the courts if this trend continues because the intent is to cut the number of judges), amount in dispute is up 15%.

Court reforms already in a “deep water area”

Zhou Qiang highlighted that court reforms are already in a “deep water area” (high risk area) and the courts:
  • need to penetrate interest group barriers;
  • have the courage to move their own “cheese”;
  • need to use “the knife” against itself (presumably to cut out corrupt, poorly or non-performing judges);
  • deal with many deep-seated problems;
  • make progress on a long list of reforms:
    • continue and expand pilot reforms on changing the financing and personnel appointments of the local courts to all provinces/directly administered cities;
    • implement hearing-centered litigation reforms;
    • make progress on case filing reforms (to resolve the long term problem of litigants facing obstacles when they file suit);
    • put in place a system with dealing with assets seized and confiscated by the courts (to avoid violation of property rights and further judicial corruption in this process);
    • implement the prohibition against defendants wearing prisoner’s garb in court;
    • further implement judicial reforms related to petitioning;
    • promote alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration, people’s mediation, administrative mediation etc.
    • continue work on pilot projects on expedited criminal procedures (for minor matters);
    • improve the people’s assessors system.

All of these reforms create tremendous challenges for the courts.  The number of cases accepted by the courts in 2014 (15,651,000) was up about 10%.  The judicial reforms to petitioning and other reforms will channel more disputes into the court system. Planned personnel reforms are leading to an exodus of young judges.  Many of the planned judicial reforms are intended to the way the courts operate internally and interact with other institutions. The 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan sets out target dates for accomplishing certain major judicial reforms.  The salary gap between what an experienced lawyer in private practice in a major law firm and a counterpart in the judiciary is large, leading many talented people to prefer the greater financial benefits and professional flexibility that comes with being a lawyer.

The political leadership has approved the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan.  Issuing it raises expectations among ordinary people as well as those in legal profession. The pressure is on for the Court leadership to deliver on the promised judicial reforms.