Signals in Zhou Qiang’s 2017 report (Part 2)

This blogpost continues the analysis in Part 1, which analyzed the first several sections of Zhou Qiang’s work report to the National People’s Congress, concerning court caseload, social stability and criminal punishment, and the courts serving to maintain the economy.

Most people who have commented (outside of China) on Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s March, 2017 report 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.

Guaranteeing people’s livelihood rights & interests

The following section is entitled  “conscientiously implement people-centered development thinking, practically guarantee people’s livelihood rights and interests.” It summarizes what the courts have been doing in civil and administrative cases, but it also signals their perceived importance in this national report.

Civil cases

President Zhou Qiang noted that the Chinese courts heard 6,738,000 civil  (民事) cases, an increase of 8.2%.  Although he did not define what he meant by civil cases, under Chinese court practice, it refers to the type of cases under the jurisdiction of the #1 civil division (see this earlier blogpost):

  1. Real estate, property and construction;
  2. Family;
  3. Torts;
  4. Labor;
  5. Agriculture;
  6.  Consumer protection; and
  7. Private lending.

On labor cases, the report mentioned that the courts heard 473,000 labor cases. This is a slight decrease from 2015 (483,311) (although the report did not do a year on year comparison). The report signalled that the SPC is working on policy with the labor authorities on transferring cases from labor mediation, labor arbitration, to the courts. This was signaled previously in the SPC’s policy document on diversified dispute resolution.  Articles on both the SPC website and local court websites have signaled the increasing difficulty of labor disputes, and the increase in “mass disputes.”

As explained in this blogpost, labor service disputes, relate to an “independent contractor,” but more often a quasi-employment relationship, governed by the Contract Law and General Principles of Civil Law, under which the worker has minimal protections. This year’s report did not mention the number of labor service cases. In 2015, the Chinese courts heard 162,920 labor service cases, an increase of 38.69%.

There was no further breakdown on the number of other types of civil cases, such as private lending or real estate cases.  For these statistics, we will need to await any further release of big data by the SPC. As blogposts in recent months indicate, private lending disputes are on the rise in economically advanced provinces and bankruptcy of real estate developers remains a concern.

This section also mentions criminal proceedings against illegal vaccine sellers, although the topic may be more appropriately be placed with the rest of the criminal matters, but likely because it is an issue that drew widespread public attention.

Family law

Echoing language in recent government pronouncements, the section heading mentions protecting marriage and family harmony and stability. The report mentions that the courts heard 1,752,000 family law cases in 2016, with no year on year comparison with 2015.  The report mentions that the SPC has established pilot family courts (as previously flagged on this blog).

Administrative disputes

First instance administrative disputes totaled 225,000 cases, a 13.2% increase over 2015, but a tiny percentage of cases in the Chinese courts. The report highlights developments in Beijing and Shanghai (they are being implemented in Shenzhen, although not mentioned), to give one local court jurisdiction over administrative cases.  According to the statistics (in Beijing, at least), this has led to a sizeable increase in administrative cases.  The report also mentions the positive role that the courts can play in resolving condemnation disputes (this blogpost looked at problems in Liaoning).

Hong Kong/Macao/Overseas Chinese cases

As mentioned by Judge Zhang Yongjian, the report mentions that the courts heard 19,000 Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Overseas Chinese related cases, and handled 11,000 judicial assistance matters with the three greater China jurisdictions.  The report also mentions the recently signed arrangement between the SPC and Hong Kong judiciary on the mutual taking of evidence, a development that seems to have escaped the notice of the Hong Kong legal community.

Military related disputes

Unusually, the report mentioned that the local courts heard 1678 military-related cases and have developed systems for coordination between the civilian and military courts.  These developments have been analyzed further in a blogpost on the Global Military Justice Reform blog.

Strictly governing the courts and institutional oversight

The following two sections of the report give a report on how the courts are upholding Party leadership, increasing Party construction within the courts, internal Party political life, and political study, all of which are in line with recent developments. Although these are stressed, this does not mean that professional competence is less valued.  The increasing caseload,  higher expectations of litigants, particularly in commercial cases, and increasing technical complexity of cases means that the SPC is in fact taking measures to improving professional capacity of the courts.  This section also mentions courts and individual judges that have been praised by central authorities and 36 judges who have died of overwork.

On anti-corruption in the courts, the report mentions that 769 senior court officials have been held responsible for ineffective leadership, 220 have been punished for violations of the Party’s Eight Point Regulations. The SPC itself had 13 persons punished for violations of law and Party discipline (offenses unstated), 656 court officials were punished for abusing their authority, among whom 86 had their cases transferred to the procuratorate.

On institutional oversight, the report signals that the SPC actively accepts supervision by the NPC, provides them with reports, deals with their proposals, and invites them to trials and other court functions. On supervision by the procuratorate, the report revealed that the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate are working on regulations on procuratorate supervision of civil and enforcement cases, a procedure sometimes abused by litigants.

2016 and 2017 judicial reforms

2016

On 2016 judicial reform accomplishments, the following were highlighted:

  1. circuit courts;
  2. case filing system;
  3. diverse dispute resolution;
  4. judicial responsibility;
  5. trial-centered criminal procedure system;
  6. separation of simple from complicated cases;
  7. people’s assessors‘ reform;
  8. greater judicial openness;
  9. more convenient courts;
  10. improving enforcement (enforcement cases were up 31.6% year on year), including using the social credit system to punish judgment debtors.

2017

The report mentions that among the targets for the courts is creating a good legal environment for the successful upcoming 19th Party Congress.  That is to be done through the following broad principles:

  1. using court functions to maintain stability and to promote development (for the most part mentioning the topics reviewed earlier in the report);
  2. better satisfying ordinary people’s demands for justice;
  3. implementing judicial reforms, especially those designated by the Party Center;
  4. creating “Smart” courts; and
  5. administering the courts strictly and improving judicial quality.

This last section mentions implementing recommendations required by the recent Central Inspection Group’s (CIG) inspection and Central policies applicable to all political-legal officials, before focusing on the importance of more professional courts, and improving the quality of courts in poor and national minority areas.

A few comments

It is clear from the above summary that the content of President Zhou Qiang’s report to the NPC is oriented to the upcoming 19th Party Congress and the latest Party policies. It appears that no new major judicial reform initiative will be announced this year.

It is likely too, that the selective release of 2016 judicial statistics in the NPC report also relates to messaging in line with the upcoming 19th Party Congress, although we know that the SPC intends to make better use of big data.  We can see that overall, the caseload of the courts is increasing rapidly, including institutionally difficult cases (such as bankruptcy and land condemnation), which put judges and courts under pressure from local officials and affected litigants. In the busiest courts, such as in Shanghai’s Pudong District, judges will be working extremely long hours to keep up with their caseload, and the impact of new legal developments. It appears (from both the report and the results of the CIG inspection) that judges will need to allocate more time to political study.  How this will play out remains to be seen. We may see a continuing brain drain from the courts, as we have seen in recent years.

 

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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.

imgres-14

©

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.
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    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

 

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

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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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