Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Fourth Plenum's "Decision": my take

The text of the decision passed by the Fourth Plenum on Oct. 23rd, entitled “Decision on Several Important Issues Regarding the All-Around Promotion of Ruling the State According to Law,” has finally been released [Chinese | English]. As expected, it offers more detail than did the Communiqué released earlier, but I don’t see anything here that would require a fundamental revision of the preliminary assessments that observers (including me) made after reading the Communiqué. Even though those assessments were varied, my sense is that whatever you thought the Communiqué indicated, your opinion will be reinforced, or at least not overturned, by your reading of the Decision.

The big-picture summary is that the Decision contemplates no fundamental reform in the relationship between the legal system and the Party. It is clear that institutionally speaking, the Party will remain above the law. At the same time, the Decision does contemplate some genuinely meaningful (and in my opinion positive) reforms. It also has a lot of stuff that might look meaningful but isn’t. I’ll explain below. Please note that I wrote this under a lot of time pressure, so it is not as well organized as it might be. Conclusions are tentative.

1. Party first, law second

My impression (which I have not taken the time to verify) is that whenever the Party and the law appear in the same sentence, the Party comes first. Certainly it comes first in some important places.

(a) Section 1 of the Decision lists several important principles that must be upheld in order to achieve the goal of ruling the state according to law. The first: leadership of the Party.  

(b) Section 6 states that judges should be loyal to four things: the Party, the state, the people, and the law. Notice which comes last. Grammatically speaking, of course, there is no reason why this sentence could not be interpreted as giving all elements equal value; in any list, something has to come first. But we know that in a document like this, nothing – not even a comma – is accidental. The elements of this list come in the order they do for a reason.

(c ) The “Three Supremes” (三个至上) long associated with former Supreme People’s Court president Wang Shengjun (a man on whose CV not a single day of legal education appears), are resurrected in the same section. Legal system personnel should give highest priority to the cause of the Party, the interests of the people, and the constitution and laws – again, listed in that order. Lawyers must support the Party’s leadership and party cells in law firms should step up their activities.

In addition, obedience of officials to law is presented throughout as a kind of internal Party policy goal: this is something that Party members should do, and officials will even be scored on it (Section 7, Subsection 3). Those who have a “special privilege” mentality will be criticized and educated, and if necessary removed from office. But because the Decision contemplates no changes in the relationship between the legal system and the Party, the system in which powerful officials can override law if they wish to remains comfortably in place. The Decision just wants them to wish to override it less often.

2. Meaningful reforms: major

(a) The Decision calls for some significant reforms in the system for managing judges.

               (i) First, it says that judicial tenure should be protected; judges should be removed from their posts only for legal reasons and in accordance with legal procedures. It’s hard to know exactly what this means; at present, as a formal matter, local people’s congresses have the right to appoint senior judges in a court, and there’s nothing in the law to suggest they can’t replace them as they please. In any case, no more detail is provided, so we’ll put this aside for now.

               (ii) A very important reform in my view is the proposal (Section 6, Subsection 1) to establish essentially a career civil-service model for the judiciary. Junior judges should be selected by provincial-level courts and should start their careers in basic-level courts. They will then be promoted to higher-level courts based on their ability. The Decision does not actually specify who will do the promoting, although it would make sense for this power to be in the hands of the provincial-level courts as well. The same principle applies to procurators. This reform is significant precisely because such a model does not exist now. Courts are still making their way out of the work-unit (单位 danwei) model. The main (or at least, an important) way to become a senior judge at a high-level court is to start out as a junior judge at a high-level court – presumably by graduating with excellent grades from a famous law school. There is not now a good system for identifying promising judges at lower levels and promoting them to different courts at higher levels.

(b) The Decision also calls for some significant reforms in the court system, both apparently designed to address the problem of local protectionism. Because courts at a given administrative level are in practice answerable to local political authority at that level (which has power over appointments and finances), they tend to protect any party that local political authority wants to protect – for example, prominent local businesses. The Chinese legal community has long viewed this as a problem and proposed various ways of addressing it.

               (i) The Supreme People’s Court is to establish “circuit tribunals” (巡回法庭 xunhui fating) each with jurisdiction over several provinces, to try cases involving more than one province. Note that this proposal does not involve setting up another layer of courts. The institutions in question are tribunals, meaning they are simply branches of the SPC. A decision of such a tribunal would be a decision of the SPC. A model for this currently exists in basic-level people’s courts, which can establish “people’s tribunals” (人民法庭 renmin fating) that exist in, or travel to, areas physically distant from the court’s location. The decisions of such tribunals are decisions of the court itself.

               (ii) There is another, different proposal to establish another layer of courts that will cross jurisdictional boundaries, again to try cases that are in some sense cross-jurisdictional. Such a proposal would require legislative and possibly constitutional amendments. The Decision gives it only a sentence, so we know basically nothing about how this proposal might be carried out.

Note that in both cases, the institutions involved (whether tribunal or court) are intended to hear only a particular kind of case: cross-jurisdictional cases. They do not appear intended to solve in a general way the problem caused by the dependence of courts on political power at the same administrative level.

3. Meaningful reforms: minor

(a) The Decision calls for breaking the link between amounts received by a government agency in fines and confiscations and that agency’s (or, presumably, its officials’) interests. The reasons for (and merit of) this are obvious. In fact, it’s a reform that has already been carried out, at least to some degree, in a number of sectors. (I just wish the U.S. government would adopt the same principle in its civil forfeiture laws.)

(b) The Decision calls for control over personnel and finances of state auditing organs to be centralized up to the provincial level. This is presumably to provide auditing bodies with more independence from local officials, who might pressure them to look the other way during their investigations.

(c) The Decision calls for reforms in the case docketing (立案 li'an) system. Any court system needs a gate-keeping procedure to weed out non-meritorious suits before they get very far. The problem with China’s current system is that in practice, courts can avoid hearing troublesome cases (for example, cases where no matter what they do they’ll be criticized) by simply refusing to docket them (i.e., refusing to accept the case filing). While such a refusal can be appealed, courts can get around this by simply refusing to refuse; they don’t issue a decision rejecting the filing, but instead just do nothing. The Decision calls for reforming this by (it seems) removing the discretion of courts to refuse cases. Instead of a system where courts can review filings for docketability (and thus have the power to reject the filings), we will get a system of “case registration” (立案登记制 li’an dengji zhi). But if so, the system will still have to come up with some way of filtering out frivolous and otherwise utterly no-hope cases without having to do a proper hearing on the merits.

(d) The Decision has some welcome language on civil rights. It specifies the principle of the presumption of innocence (疑罪从无 yi zui cong wu: literally, something like “when there is doubt about the crime, err on the side of finding no crime”). It also endorses the principle of exclusion of unlawfully gathered evidence. I put both these items in the “meaningful but minor” category because I don’t want to say they’re meaningless, but at the same time we have heard this before and problems persist.

(e) The Decision endorses an Anglo-American type jury! At present, China has a system of so-called “people’s assessors” (人民陪审员 renmin peishenyuan): lay people who in certain cases sit alongside judges and have (in theory, although of course not in practice) exactly equivalent decision-making power over the case. It’s just a vote at the end. Thus, it’s not appropriate to call them a jury, even if they functioned exactly as they are supposed to in theory, instead of (as seems to be the case in practice) as decorative extras. But the Decision calls for the gradual implementation of a system whereby assessors will decide only issues of fact (did A actually call B a stinker?), not issues of law (assuming A called B a stinker, is B entitled to damages for hurt feelings?). This is exactly how the Anglo-American jury is supposed to function.

I group this with the minor reforms because although it would be major if actually implemented, I’m not confident that it will get very far. I should also say that it’s not unambiguously positive. Just because it resembles the Anglo-American jury doesn’t automatically mean it’s a great thing. I’m undecided on this one.

3. Meaningless feel-good language

The Decision gives a shout-out to innumerable Good Things, from constraining state power to increasing legal aid. Typically, it calls for strengthening or increasing something that is already there. Consider how often the following verbs appear:

Term

No. of occurrences

jiaqiang (加强strengthen)

61

jianquan (健全 strengthen)

47

wanshan (完善 perfect)

79

tigao (提高 raise or increase)

19

It would be otiose to go through them all. I would instead propose that the burden be on those who assert in any particular case that this language means something to point to the specific institutional reform that accompanies it. If there is none, then we can only wait and see. Talk is cheap. Something may come of the promise and something may not. Here are a few examples.

(a) The Decision calls for strengthening the system of constitutional review of legislation. There is such a system in place now, but it appears to be utterly non-functional. The Decision does not propose a fundamentally different way of ensuring that legislation and government actions conform to the constitution. It essentially calls for maintaining the current system of (potential) top-down review, but doing it better.

(b) The Decision makes a bow to the concept of limited government in several places, but typically only in general terms. The institutional changes that would actually accomplish this do not appear. An important principle is declared in Section 3, Subsection 1: administrative organs cannot act without specific legislatively delegated authority. This seems pretty good, and in general might be laudable, except that it is profoundly unrealistic. Emergencies happen. It might be better to establish the principle that administrative organs must act within certain bounds or according to certain principles (set forth, for example, in the constitution or a statute). Here as elsewhere, we see the idea that while the actions of state officials need to be controlled, that control should be internal to the system and not achieved through external constraints.

(c) The Decision denounces attempts by leading officials to interfere with court cases, and calls for the establishment of a system for keeping track of such attempts. But the same system of incentives that now makes judges responsive to such attempts is going to make them reluctant to record and report on them. Moreover, the same Decision elsewhere (Section 7, Subsection 1) stresses the importance of the Legal-Political Committee, a Party body that exists at various administrative levels, and calls for the Party organization in political-legal bodies (which includes courts) to report important matters to the local Party committee. Given what we know about how China operates now, I think it’s fair to ask for very, very strong evidence before believing that powerful officials will no longer be able to interfere in cases that interest them. Does anyone really believe that Bo Xilai’s case was decided solely by the judges who presided at the trial, or that Zhou Yongkang’s case will not be decided by the Standing Committee of the Politburo?

4. Dogs that didn’t bark

Curiously unmentioned in both the Communiqué and the Decision is an important reform mooted at last year’s Third Plenum: the centralization up to the provincial level of court finances and personnel appointments. This reform, designed to counter local protectionism, is apparently already being tried out on a pilot basis in Shanghai and perhaps other places. It’s odd not to see it mentioned here. [UPDATE, Oct. 29, 5:30 pm EDT: This reform is popular among legal academics but controversial among judges. There are at least two reasons for this. First, judges fear that a more hierarchical system of authority in general will increase the power of court leaders over them. Second, judges in prosperous areas fear that putting court finances under a higher adminstrative authority (i.e., the province) will mean a unified salary scale for all judges under that authority. Judges in poor areas might get more, but judges in rich areas will get less. Or so they fear. In any case, the absence of language about this may well be evidence that this reform has stalled.]

A welcome (to me) absence in the Decision is language downplaying legal professionalism and touting closeness to the masses, praising the Ma Xiwu adjudication style, etc. We have seen a lot of this language in recent years (for a thorough analysis, see Carl Minzner’s “China’s Turn Against Law” and Ben Liebman's "A Return to Populist Legality? Historical Legacies and Legal Reform"), so it’s a bit surprising not to see it here. There is a moderately troubling line endorsing the move of “qualified” military officials into the ranks of legal system personnel; it doesn’t exactly support the much-criticized practice of retired military officers simply donning judicial robes, but the drafters of the Decision cannot have been unaware of this background.

[UPDATE, Oct. 29, 3 p.m. EDT: It occurs to me that this fits well into a professionalization model, but not very well into the story of deprofessionalization, populism, and China-turns-against-law that we see in the work of Carl Minzner and Ben Liebman (a story that I generally agree with). In addition, it suggests a greater role for court decisions as sources of legal authority and not just one-off judgments as between two disputing parties. If a court decision is just a one-off judgment unrelated to anything else the legal system does, then it doesn't much matter if untrained lay people decide legal questions as well as factual ones. But if a court decision constitutes legal authority to any degree, then you want to control who's making that decision and how they make it. This reform, if carried out, makes it more possible for court decisions to have precedential value.]

5. Objectionable items

While I am disappointed (but not surprised) at the continued invocation of the need for the Party to control everything, many and perhaps most of the specific reforms endorsed in the Decision are positive. But not all. Take the problem of judges being too responsive to media pressure.  This is a real problem: sometimes the media will take a particular view of a case, and the actual facts get completely lost in the dominant narrative. But why do judges feel pressure to satisfy the media? The media does not pay their salaries; the public doesn’t even know their names. The reason is institutional: they are getting phone calls from their political superiors, who are getting phone calls from their political superiors, and everyone is barking, “What the hell is going on down there in your jurisdiction? Make this fuss go away!” Chinese officials lose favor in the eyes of their superiors when there’s a commotion in their jurisdiction; the superiors don’t care about the merits. But instead of addressing this problem, the Decision takes the easy way out: let’s control media reporting (Section 4, Subsection 6).

This policy has to be seen in the context of recent rules severely restricting the ability of lawyers to comment on cases they are handling; it’s part and parcel of a general crackdown on information regarding court cases. Since getting your case into court was one of the few ways remaining for marginalized people to have a legitimate way of getting press coverage (the press can’t report on a demonstration, for example, but can report on a court case), the policy represents a further closing, not an opening.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/china_law_prof_blog/2014/10/the-fourth-plenums-decision-my-take.html

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Comments

When the new Plenium document still reinforces the primary supremacy of the Party, all the technical improvements of the system only touch on the surface. As I said in my letter to the editor of the Financial Times (Oct 15th) and in a different context, when the Party boss tells the judges to bow, they just say how low. The common people can see that, how do you expect them to respect the judges and obey the law.

Posted by: Frankie Fook-lun Leung | Oct 30, 2014 10:27:22 AM

Don, thanks for the interesting posting. There is however a kind of nascent precedent for regional circuit courts. The recent decision on specialized IP courts of the NPC creates courts that cross regions with a province (Guangdong) or municipality (Beijing, Shanghai). Many observers are disappointed that these courts did not have a broader geographical jurisdiction. However SPC judges I have heard (notably IPR Deputy Chief Tribunal Jin Kesheng at a recent program in Tongji) made it clear that this is an experiment in establishing circuit courts of a broader regional jurisdiction, much like the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. As you note, this type of change - even the current "baby step" -- required legislation.

Posted by: Mark Cohen | Oct 31, 2014 4:36:11 AM