China International Commercial Court & the Supreme People’s Court Monitor

IMG_3582I am prefacing this blogpost with a statement that nothing in it (or future blogposts, for that matter) represents the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), the China International Commercial Court (CICC), or its newly established International Commercial Expert Committee (Expert Committee).

As can be seen from the above photo taken in the SPC, with President Zhou Qiang, Vice President Luo Dongchuan and others, I was among the first group of experts appointed to the CICC’s International Commercial Expert Committee. Former World Trade Organization Appellate Judge Zhang Yuejiao and I were the only two women who attended the initial meeting on 26 August.  I’ll set out some comments on the Expert Committee and the initial meeting.

The Expert Committee is the first official SPC committee that includes foreigners and others from outside of mainland China, and it may be the first of its nature within the Chinese justice (司法) system.  The Expert Committee was established as a way to involve foreigners in the CICC.  As I wrote earlier this year, unlike Singapore or Dubai, because of the restrictions of Chinese law, the CICC could not invite foreign judges to serve on the court.  Among the 32 experts appointed to the Expert Committee include many leading specialists in international arbitration and dispute resolution, including judges, arbitrators, scholars and practitioners from inside and outside China.  The detailed rules on how the CICC and the Expert Committee will operate (and interact) are still being drafted.  The provisions on the establishment of the CICC anticipate that the experts on the Expert Committee will be able to mediate disputes and provide opinions on foreign law, among other functions.

The initial meeting was held on a Sunday morning, likely to accommodate President Zhou Qiang’s schedule or that of the other senior officials who attended the meeting.  SPC  newly appointed Vice President Luo Dongchuan chaired the proceedings.  Future events will reveal his relationship, if any with the CICC.  He had previously headed the SPC’s #4 Civil Division and was most recently the head of Xinjiang’s Supervision Commission. The senior officials who attended from outside the SPC included Mr. Xu Hong, head of the Department of Treaties and Law of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), several officials from the Department of Treaties and Law of the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), as well as representatives from China’s major arbitration institutions.  A large group of officials from the SPC also attended, seated in the row behind the experts.  The CICC judges sat separately.  President Zhou Qiang presented all the experts present with their letters of appointment, followed by speeches by officials from MFA and MOFCOM, and several of the most prominent experts on the Expert Committee, including Huang Jin, President of the China University of Political Science and Law, Sir William Blair, former High Court judge and judge in charge of the Commercial  Court in London, and Rimsky Yuen, former Hong Kong Secretary for Justice.

The remaining two hours of the meeting consisted of brief presentations by some of the SPC judges involved and several experts, while other experts provided comments.  Both Judge Zhang Yuejiao and I spoke.  My brief presentation was on “the CICC: An Important Step in the Internationalization of the Chinese Courts.”  I raised a few of the legal issues that I had raised in earlier blogposts.  I concluded by reminding the attendees that the CICC could be a great opportunity to train a new generation of Chinese international judicial personnel, and that I was looking forward to the CICC giving a chance to some of my students at the Peking University School of Transnational Law to intern there!

 

What China’s judicial reform white paper says about its vision for its judiciary

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Portrait of Qing dynasty inspector

Over one year has elapsed since the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has implemented the judicial reforms set out in the February, 2015 4th five year plan for reforming the judiciary.  While thousands of words have been written in Chinese and English, some praising,  criticizing, mocking, and bemoaning the reforms, it was only in late February, 2016 that the SPC issued a comprehensive official assessment, focusing on its achievements. That official assessment takes the form of a bilingual white paper (White Paper) issued in early March (but full text released on-line only in English), plus a section of President Zhou Qiang’s work report devoted to the judicial reforms, a first for the SPC.  I surmise that it was approved by the Judicial Reform Leading Group.

This blogpost looks at the vision for the Chinese judiciary that the White Paper conveys, by looking at several sections.

 

Chinese court system and the reform process

The description of the reform process in the first section of the White Paper tells us who/what is driving the reform process, the nature of the process, the core issues, and how the judicial reform process is being monitored.

Facts highlighted:

  • During 2014-2015,13 out of 19 plenary sessions held by the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform involved judicial reform, where 27 judicial reform documents were adopted.
    • A partial list of those 27 documents is found here.
  • The Social System Reform Specialized Group (the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform) is in charge of judicial reform;
  • The SPC has a leading group in charge of judicial reform, replicated at the provincial level, and any judicial reform plans piloted by them need to be approved by the SPC or above (the 4th Judicial Reform Five Year Plan states this).

According to this section, the four core judicial reform measures are:

  • improving the classified management of judicial personnel [treating judges differently from clerks and other support personnel and civil servants0;
  • the judicial accountability system [the lifetime responsibility system set out in regulations issued in September, 2015, but only implemented in areas piloting judicial reform, controversial among judge and academics];
  • professional protection of judicial personnel ;
  • unified management of personnel, funds and properties of local courts below the provincial level.

These four measures will be piloted throughout the country in several rounds before they are implemented nationwide.

Comments

From the description of the reforms we can see that the specific reforms discussed in the remainder of the report have been cleared by the Party leadership.  It seems reasonable to assume that each reform involved hundreds of hours of policy paper drafting by SPC staff and internal and cross-institutional discussions, and responses to comments during those discussions.

What the White Paper did not mention is that the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform and the Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform established their own inspectorate for monitoring the progress of reform,including judicial reform, (reviving a traditional institution).  It is unclear which reforms will be targeted this year for inspection. The separate inspectorate seems to indicate that these Central Leading Groups want their  own source of information on how reforms are being implemented.

 

Judicial independence (Ensuring Independent and Impartial Exercise of Judicial Power Pursuant to Law)

One of the messages conveyed in this section is that local courts do not belong to local governments but are established by the State at the local level to exercise judicial power on behalf of the State. The goal as stated in this section, is to “form an institutional environment and social atmosphere that respects [the] judiciary, supports [the] judiciary and trusts [the] judiciary.”

It  lists about a dozen measures. What is new in this section:

  • a summary of the policy thinking on judicial appointments and funding of the local courts.  On judicial appointments, judges will be selected by judicial selection committee at the provincial level in terms of professionalism, and will be appointed and removed according to common standards. This is a push in the direction of professionalism, and away from the phenomenon noted in the past few years of having chief judges who lacked a legal education.  On the funding issue, the Central Government will fully guarantee the funding of the local courts. The provincial fiscal departments manage the funds of local courts below the provincial level, the local courts will submit their budgets to the provincial fiscal departments, and  budget funds will be appropriated by the centralized payment system of the national treasury.
  • Fuller discussion of cross-administrative district courts to hear administrative cases–piloted in Beijing and Shanghai and other locations, under the umbrella of a policy document of the SPC that has not been made public. The concept is to have cases against local governments heard outside of the area in which they arose.  The SPC recent policy document on the development of the greater Beijing area has further content in that area.

This section also discusses the following reforms, previously discussed: circuit courts; cross-administrative division courts; intellectual property courts (by Mark Cohen, chinipr.com); administrative cases being centralized in one court (Shenzhen is one of the pilot project venues); maritime courts; environmental protection divisions; official interference.

Improving the way the courts function ( Improving the Functional Mechanism of Adjudicative Powers)

The fourth section of the White Paper provides useful insights into how the judiciary is intended to operate post reform.  It starts out with a statement that judicial power is a judging power in essence and emphasizes impartiality, neutrality and personal experience.”

The focus on this section is on reforms to the way Chinese courts operate. As I have written previously, they have operated in many of the same ways that other Party and government organs operate.     This section describes pilot reforms, new policies, or regulations concerning the following (among others):

  • personnel reforms described above (but do not mention the pay rise that goes along with it in at least some courts);
  • senior judges within a court (court presidents, vice presidents, division chiefs) will no longer approve judgments, except for a small number going to the judicial committee);
  • senior judges will hear cases instead of concentrating solely on administrative matters;
  • courts will establish a specialized judges council made up of judges in specialized areas (criminal, civil, etc) to provide views to judges hearing cases on the interpretation of substantive issues, on an equal basis rather than seniority;
  • the SPC has abolished irrational performance indicators and forbidden senior judges from involving themselves in cases that they have not heard;
  • the SPC has issued policy guidance on the reform of judicial committees (not yet made public).  The principles set out follow generally what was described by President Zhou Qiang earlier, but include judicial committee discussion of “major and complicated cases concerning national diplomacy, security and social stability and those required by law.”  The guidance calls for more transparency (unclear whether to be within the court or greater), better record-keeping, and less involvement by judicial committees with specific cases. As discussed in an earlier blogpost, judicial committees have often been a route for transmitting the views of local officials and have been been implicated in some of the wrongful conviction cases);

    judicial committee

    judicial committee ©SPC

  • judicial responsibility/accountability system, mentioned above;
  • regulations on the jurisdiction of different levels of courts in civil cases (described in this blogpost).

These reforms look to do a number of things that are significant within strictures of the Chinese system: distinguish judges from other Party cadres and give them better status and pay; break down or reconstitute some of the basic internal structures of the courts that have facilitated corruption, unjust cases, and discouraged talented judges; abolish performance indicators that have been poisonous for judges and litigants alike.

 The vision

The vision that the SPC  has for the Chinese judiciary and judges can be seen from the description of the reforms above.  The SPC intends to create a more professional judiciary (with a lower headcount), that is better paid, more competent, has performance indicators that look more like other jurisdictions, with an identity and operating mechanisms separate from other Party/government organs, that will be more autonomous, no longer under the thumb of local authorities, but operates within the big tent of Party policy.  To be incorporated in the judicial reforms, the implications of each measure must have been thoroughly discussed by the Party leadership and the Party leadership is using its own institutions to monitor results.  Will the judicial reforms achieve their goal of making people feel justice in every case?  For that, the jury (or is it the people’s assessors(also being reformed)?) is still out.

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.

Case law Chinese style–where is it going?

1343124282_12_dqgeOn 6 January 2015, case law Chinese style (案例指导制度) made the headlines of the People’s Court Daily and the Supreme People’s Court’s (the Court’s) websites, because the Supreme People’s Court president, Zhou Qiang provided an introduction to a book that the Court is publishing on guiding cases. Universities such as Yale, Stanford, and the City University of Hong Kong as well as institutions such as the European Union have held training programs with Court staff on the case method. Numerous academic conferences have been held on the topic in China.  The Communist Party leadership expressed its approval for case law in the 4th Plenum Decision in the following phrase:

  • Strengthen and standardize judicial interpretation and case guidance, and unify standards of applicable law (加强和规范司法解释和案例指导,统一法律适用标准).

As discussed in this blogpost, the Court’s October, 2013 judicial reform plan flagged the importance of case law in this phrase:

  •  “Expand fully the important role of guiding cases and cases for reference”.

This blogpost will look at how the Court leadership understands Chinese “case law” and how it sees case law to be useful to the judiciary.

Waving the flag for case law

President Zhou Qiang’s introduction incorporated both guiding cases, as designated by the Supreme People’s Court under its 2010 regulations, and model/typical cases.

He highlighted the following benefits of case law as:

  • summarizing trial experience;
  • strengthening supervision and guidance [of lower courts by higher courts]
  • unifying the application of law;
  • improving the quality of adjudication,
  • helping establish a judicial system with Chinese characteristics
  • assisting  in resolving the problem of similar cases decided differently;
  • controlling judges’ discretion.

Zhou Qiang did not go into the specifics of the case law system, which Hu Yunteng, the head of the Court’s Research Office,  set out in a January, 2014 article, addressing:

  • distinction between guiding cases and other cases issued by the Court or lower courts;
  • how judges should refer to guiding cases;
  • issues facing the guiding case system.

Judge Hu Yunteng clarifies the point that many other commentators and I have made, that cases selected as guiding or model cases are not the entire judgements, but have been curated and edited.

The distinction between guiding cases and other cases

Judge Hu distinguishes guiding cases (Stanford Law School’s Guiding Case Project translates and comments on them) from model cases published in the Supreme People’s Court Gazette, by the Court itself, and individual tribunals of the Court. (Examples of model cases can be found here and here.)

Judge Hu points out that the title, document number, method of selection and approval, and most importantly, the authority of guiding cases is different.  Guiding cases, unlike model or typical cases issued by the Court or lower courts, must be referred to by all courts in similar cases, and lower courts may refer to guiding cases in the reasoning section of their judgments.

How judges should refer to guiding cases

Chinese judges must focus on the important points of guiding cases, which have been approved by the judicial committee of the Supreme People’s Court, and secures their unifying role in the Chinese court system.They must only be used in similar cases.  Judge Hu distinguishes Chinese guiding cases from Anglo-American precedent, because guiding cases can only be issued by the Supreme People’s Court.  He says that judges may refer to guiding cases in their judgments and distinguish the case before them from a relevant guiding case.

Issues facing the guiding case system

Judge Hu identifies the following issues:

  • The relationship between judicial interpretations and guiding cases, and in which cases guiding cases rather than judicial interpretation should be relied upon is unresolved.
  • Second, the issues in the guiding cases generally are not breakthrough cases and are more “damp squibs.” Judge Hu suggests that the guiding case system address more controversial cases.
  • Third, it is unclear to the lower courts when guiding cases must be used, and the consequences if a lower court fails to use a guiding case on point.
  • Fourth, he admits that too few guiding cases have been issued and suggests that the Court issue an number of guiding cases equal to judicial interpretations.

Comments from the market

An opinion piece in Caixin, reporting on a late December conference at Renmin University on case law, set out comments from some Chinese legal professionals on the case system:

Renmin University Professor Huang Jingping–“very few judges refer to guiding cases”

Peking University Professor Liang Genlin–“the position of guiding cases in the legal system and how they can be distinguished from other cases is chaotic”–clearer rules are needed.

Li Guifang, partner, Deheng Law Office–guiding cases are needed.

Closing comments

It is likely that guiding cases and model/typical cases issued by the Supreme People’s Court will continue to be used to accomplish several goals:

  • Publicize the accomplishments of the lower courts.
  • Distributed as political education or have political purposes.
  •  Convey to the lower courts, lawyers, and the general public the correct position on a substantive issue but also have a political purpose;
  • Provide guidance for judges and lawyers on substantive legal issues;
  • Provide models of correctly decided cases.

Finally, it appears likely that the issue of the authority of guiding cases vs. other types of cases will be set out in regulations at some point.

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

General Party Secretary Xi Jinping Issues Written Instructions (批示) to the Supreme People’s Court (Updated)

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On the eve of the Chinese New Year, a banner headline was posted on the  Supreme People’s Court (Court) websites:

Study the Important Written Instructions of  General Party Secretary Xi Jinping

A revised version of that banner has remained on those websites since (the photo above), apparently unobserved by outside commentators, who may have not realized its significance.   This blogpost will look at:

  • what written instructions (批示) are;
  • the significance of Xi Jinping giving written instructions;
  • what Xi Jinping’s instructions were;
  • why the instructions were issued on eve of the New Year; and
  • why Zhou Qiang, President of the Court called on the lower courts to study diligently Xi Jinping’s instructions.

What are written instructions (批示)?

”Written instructions“ (批示) means notes or comments made by a superior on a written document submitted for approval or comment.  It is used in reference to Party/government documents as well as documents within the court system (see the regulations on handling each type of document).  The term has been used throughout the history of the PRC as well as in Chinese history.  Analysis of Chinese political documents often mentions written instructions.

According to the reports on various Court websites and in the press, Xi Jinping gave his written instructions on 28 January in response to a report submitted by the Supreme People’s Court  entitled Situation Concerning the Work of the People’s Courts in 2013 and Proposals for their Work in 2014 (关于2013年人民法院工作情况和2014年工作打算的报告).  The report has not been made public.

What were Xi Jinping’s written instructions and what is their significance?

Xi Jinping wrote what to the outside observer appears to be a collection of slogans from the Third Plenum Decision.  However appearances can be deceiving.

He wrote that the courts had diligently implemented the Center’s policies and implemented their responsibilities and achieved new results.  He expressed his hope that the courts will make persistent efforts, implement the spirit of the 18th Party Congress, Third Plenum etc, uphold the Party’s leadership, promote judicial reform, advance the building of a judicial system that is fair, efficient, and authoritative..provide powerful judicial protection for reform, and continue to promote the building of the rule of law in China.

The significance of the written instructions is not so much in its content as the fact that Xi Jinping issued it to the Supreme People’s Court.  It is unusual for a Party General Secretary to have issued them.  By doing so, Xi Jinping expresses his support, praise, demands, and hopes for Zhou Qiang and the Court leadership.

Why were the written instructions issued on eve of the New Year?

The written instructions were issued on the eve of the Chinese New Year to approve what Zhou Qiang and the other Court leaders did in 2013, as well as confirm the planned policies of the Court for 2014.  The written instructions were issued before the Chinese New Year to enable the Court leadership to be better equipped when dealing with issues at the National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting in early March. Court leaders are likely anticipating that local opposition to judicial reforms under consideration may be expressed at the NPC meeting.

Why are the lower courts requested to study diligently Xi Jinping’s instructions?

Xi Jinping’s instructions summarize in one paragraph the Central Committee’s policy towards the courts and their role in the Third Plenum reforms as well as judicial reforms.  The written instructions enable the lower courts  to understand the political background against which they work and the political goals for their work in the near and longer term.

The more sophisticated lower court judges understand that the written instructions mean that the Party leadership values the work of the Court leadership, but recognize that this will not resolve their caseload.

Concluding Remarks

To the outside observer:

  • it illustrates what is meant by Party leadership of the courts at the highest level;
  • in the political context of China, it is a major coup for Zhou Qiang (and colleagues) and their reform policies for Xi Jinping to have issued those written instructions; and
  • It means the political leadership is behind those reforms.
  • At the same time, it places a great deal of pressure on the Court leadership to deliver results (as seen from the political leadership) in the judicial reforms.
  • It would not be surprising to hear voices opposing some of the reforms at the NPC meeting.

Pentatonic themes from the Supreme People’s Court

Pentatonic themes emanate from five articles on the national court website (www.chinacourt.org), which is managed by the Supreme People’s Court (the Court).  Although these themes appear dissonant, they reflect where the Court is now and where it may be headed. The five articles (or interfaces) relate to the

  • Mass line education and practice campaign;
  • Defense of the new joint interpretation on Internet defamation;
  • Interview with Court President  Zhou Qiang ;
  • Judicial reform: should the judicial committee be abolished; and
  • The Enterprise Bankruptcy Law Interpretation (II).

The first two articles are the most political and the last is most technical.  The middle one is the most significant, although it inevitably requires some decoding, and the fourth is related to the third.

1.  The mass line education and practice campaign

The national court website includes a banner that links to further information about the mass line education and practice campaign.  There is likely an internal Party Propaganda department directive directing that this be done.  The Supreme People’s Procuratorate website has a similar banner, as do the websites of the lower court websites. Communist Party (Party) leadership of the courts means that the mass line education and practice campaign must be featured and implemented in the courts.  This section features articles on themes in the campaign stressed by the Party as well as action by the Court.

 2. Justifying the joint interpretation criminalizing the posting of internet rumors

Several articles on the national court website relate to the joint interpretation criminalizing the posting on the internet of false rumors.  Many others have examined the joint interpretation, the comments by a “responsible person,” and the related Party documents that preceded (and directed) its issuance, so I will not re-hash those issues. The articles on the national court website justify the joint interpretation (and could not do otherwise), including one stating that “freedom of speech” and criminal punishment of false rumors is not contradictory.  It would appear (from the posting of the comments of the responsible person on the judicial interpretation on the website of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate) that the Supreme People’s Court did not take the lead in drafting this interpretation that has drawn derisive comments from the legal community within China.

3.  Court reform under Party leadership: Interview with Court President Zhou Qiang published in Seeking Facts

This article, which links to an interview with Court President Zhou Qiang in the magazine Seeking Facts (the journal of the Central Committee of the Communist Party) is important because he identifies (within the constraints of his role and the audience that he is addressing) the major issues facing the court system and his vision of the development of courts, linking it, (as he must), to the Party line as set out by General Secretary Xi Jinping, including the mass line education and practice campaign.  He uses as his anchor the statement that Xi Jinping made earlier this year:

“In every single legal case in China, we should work hard to ensure that the mass of the public feel they have received fair justice.”

Among the issues that he raises in the interview, Zhou Qiang identifies the new challenges facing the courts—as he sees it, the demands of the people on the courts are continuously increasing, while the relatively retarded capabilities of the courts are unchanged, manifesting themselves in the following types of cases:

  • eminent domain,
  • environmental and
  • internet cases.

He said these types are cases that are particularly difficult to resolve, and the new media environment means that any case at any stage can become high profile—imposing particular pressure on the courts. He touches on a number of issues that relate to public perception of the courts:

  • Obstacles to litigation, such as court refusal to accept cases;
  • Legal aid for the poor;
  • Interference into court operations;
  • Localism and bureaucratic nature; and
  • Wrongful convictions.

On the latter point he says that the criminal justice system should work together to avoid them, and the victims should be compensated and those responsible punished. In a related development, the Party Central Political Legal Committee has issued guidelines on dealing with those cases, although the full text of those guidelines does not seem to have been released.

Zhou Qiang is (inevitably) less specific in suggesting specific solutions to the issues that he has raised.

4.  Judicial reform: should the judicial committee be abolished?

Related to the judicial reform issues discussed by Court president Zhou Qiang, an article on the national court website raises the issue of the role of judicial committees in the Chinese courts  (). This brief article further links to a website with a project jointly sponsored by the national court website and Qinghua University—designed to rekindle discussions on what should become of the judicial committee (see my 2010 article on judicial committees–Article on judicial committees).  Throughout the history of the PRC, court legislation has stated that judicial committees “practice democratic centralism” and that their task is to “sum up judicial experience and to discuss important or difficult cases or other issues relating to judicial work.”  Judicial committees operate according to Communist Party principles of leadership to decide cases that are too difficult or important for an individual judge or judicial panel to decide, to ensure the optimal substantive result (as seen from the institutional perspective of the courts.

The pluses and minuses of judicial committees have been debated within China and abroad for 20 or more years.

5.  Judicial Interpretation of the Bankruptcy Law (II)

This article is included because it relates to the ongoing technical role of the Court.  A second long judicial opinion (but shorter than the first) has been under consideration for some time, and according to reports a third judicial opinion is being drafted.  The Court has wisely included practicing lawyers as well as liquidators in discussions on the future draft.  A draft version of this second interpretation was released in 2012 for discussion by some lower courts as well as specialists.  Comments by the drafters to the press on the interpretation can be found here.

6.  Conclusions?

As to the pentatonic themes:

  • The courts are under the leadership of the Party and must act in accordance with its policy line;
  • The Chinese courts are facing ever more complicated social issues, requiring greater professional (and political) competence;
  • The Chinese courts are facing ever more complicated commercial issues, requiring a greater level of technical competence;
  • Court leadership is exploring more sensitive court reform issues (at a theoretical level);
  • Court leadership is taking concrete steps concerning less controversial reform issues that will benefit “the masses”, such as legal aid to the poor.