Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Friday, April 3, 2009

Supreme People's Court Work Report: comments

I finally got around to reading Wang Shengjun's Supreme People's Court Work Report delivered to the National People's Congress on March 10th and released a week later. In a genre that practically demands platitudinousness, Wang went beyond the call of duty. I was thinking of having an RA do a statistical count of meaningless 4-character phrases such as 开拓奋进 and 扎实工作 and then compare the frequency with previous years' reports, but gave it up because of difficulties of definition.

Anyway, here are a few comments:

  • The Supreme People's Court itself hears a very large number of cases: it accepted 10,553 cases in 2008, up from 7,725 in 2007. Assuming death penalty review (for which they hired literally hundreds of new judges) counts as a case, then I would guess that the great majority of these cases are death penalty review cases. They don't have jurisdiction over many other cases - appeals as of right from any of China's provincial-level courts and cases of national significance, over which they have original jurisdiction. One Chinese scholar estimates (Chinese | English) that death penalty review in and after 2007 would be about 90% of the SPC's case load; if so, then this jibes with rough estimates of the number of death sentences in China, which generally put it at around 10,000; the lowest possible number is 1,718 in 2008, which is the number of public announcements of executions actually counted by Amnesty International.
  • Once again we get a statistic of how many people were sentenced to punishments of at least 5 years' (or maybe "more than 5 years"; the Chinese can be read both ways, but it's probably "at least") imprisonment (including life sentences and death sentences): 159,020. This strikes me as the world's most useless number. Is there any purpose served by lumping together someone who gets 5 years (or a bit more) and someone who is executed? I have to admit that this way of categorizing criminal sentences was not just invented by Wang, though - it has a long history in Chinese Communist Party criminal law. In the Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1934), the longest fixed-term sentence was 5 years; after that, it was death. I guess they didn't want to feed anyone longer than 5 years, or perhaps correctly anticipated they wouldn't last that long against the Guomindang encirclement campaigns.
  • Incredibly, Wang boasts that in the melamine-tainted milk case that poisoned about 290,000 babies (as well as in other emergencies such as the Wenchuan earthquake), the SPC "promptly formulated judicial measures" to address the issues. The judicial measure formulated by the SPC in the melamine case seems to have been a secret instruction to lower courts not to accept any tort suits; although lawyers and plaintiffs made many attempts, no case was accepted until March 25th, more than two weeks after Wang delivered his report.
  • Labor disputes were way up: 94% more than the previous year. This statistic has been out for a while and is generally interpreted as reflecting both the new Labor Contract Law and harder economic times. But it might also reflect a new willingness of the courts to accept such cases; perhaps in the past they were turning many away.
  • Wang states that the rate for executed judgments (presumably civil) was 87%. It's hard to know what this number means. I don't think it could possibly mean that 87% of civil judgments not voluntarily performed were subsequently fully performed through the execution process. The 87% figure must, I think, include partial performance. But 5% and 95% are both partial, so it's hard to know really how significant it is.
  • We see renewed praise for the "Ma Xiwu adjudication style." The populist, from-the-masses-to-the-masses, procedure-be-damned Ma Xiwu style is definitely making a rhetorical comeback. When I was in Beijing last December I picked up some recent books on the "Ma Xiwu adjudication style." For more on the Ma Xiwu adjudication style, click here. Ben Liebman of Columbia Law School will shortly be publishing a great paper on the return of populism in China's courts. (See E. Perry and S. Heilmann (ed.), Mao's Invisible Hand (forthcoming).)
  • In line with the resurrection of praise for the Ma Xiwu style, there's also a renewed emphasis on mediation; in 2008, apparently 59% of civil cases were settled by court mediation.
  • The people's assessor system seems to be developing into a system involving a small cadre of semi-professional citizen judges who hear a very small (and probably well defined) number of cases. This is what I guess on the basis of the following statistic: 55,681 assessors sat in on a total of 505,412 cases. This is about 5% of the total number of cases in 2008, no matter how defined (10.7 million accepted, 9.8 million completed); not a lot. On the other hand, that's about 9 cases per assessor, and even more when you consider that very often there is (or is supposed to be) more than one assessor per case. This jibes with what I've heard elsewhere: that assessors are selected with a view to them serving for what amounts to a term and sitting in on several cases.
  • Because China has a process for changing the verdict of judgments that have already become "legally effective", there is concern in some quarters that no Chinese judgments are ever really final. If the report is correct, then as a practical matter it seems a legally effective judgment is pretty final; only 0.19% of such judgments were changed. On the other hand, I suppose one has to do an individualized determination in each case; procuratorates managed to get judgments changed in at least 2,273 (24%) of the 9,604 legally effective judgments they challenged.
  • According to Wang, the caseload of the courts has gone up twentyfold in the years from 1978 to 2008 (the statistics are readily available, but I haven't checked this statement); at the same time, the number of court personnel has increased by only 168% (at least, that's how I interpret "增加了1.68倍").
  • Finally, a great deal of time seems to have been spent getting judges to study the Three Supremes (the obvious joke is too obvious to be worth making, so I won't): Supremacy of the Cause of the Party, Supremacy of the Interests of the People, and Supremacy of the Constitution and Law (the last one coming, well, last).

Comments welcome. Remember that they won't show up until I review them - that's how the system is configured - so don't keep re-posting in frustration when you don't see them.

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It's also ridiculous that the report didn't mention the corrupted ex-vice president, while it was approved by the people's congress. The representatives are blind to judicial corruption or just collaborate with it or benefit from it?

Posted by: bin | Apr 4, 2009 5:56:11 AM

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