The high-profile court reforms, initiated at the fourth plenum of the 18th CCP Party Central Committee in 2014, are now complete. On the surface, many reform measures appear to boost judicial independence and Chinese judges’ prestige. But in reality, the regime has further tightened the control of the judiciary and its judges.

Reforms under Xi

These reforms have elevated court budgets to the provincial level, strengthened adjudication powers, set up Supreme People’s Court (SPC) circuit courts, and overhauled lay assessors’ systems.

Elevating Budgets to the Provincial Level

The courts used to be financially dependent on local governments. This was one of the primary reasons for courts making decisions in favour of local authorities. Since 2013, all judicial budgetary decisions have been elevated to the provincial level.

The Judge Quota Reform

The judge quota (员额制) reform attempts to build up an elite profession of judges, by admitting fewer but more capable people to the judge’s track. The goal of this is to craft a professional, standardized, and elite court organization.

For each province, the central government has set the judge quota to be capped at 39 per cent of the personnel size for the courts. Those who were not re-admitted were disqualified as judges. Upon the completion of the reform in 2017, the number of Chinese judges dropped from 210,000 to 120,000.

The Reform on Judges’ Responsibilities

The essence of the judge’s ‘responsibility system’ is to “let the adjudicator judge, but hold those who adjudicate responsible”. Judges are responsible for their decision for life, even though nowadays they can make most decisions without supervisors’ approval.

At the same time, the Party has strengthened its control of the courts through the Supervisory Commission (监察委). The Supervisory Committee is ranked above the SPC and supervises the court system through tightened regulations and widened investigative powers.

Strengthened Legitimate Influences

The reforms mentioned above have weakened some illegitimate influences over the judges, such as guanxi and corruption. Administrative influences within individual courts have also declined. Previously, court officials had to approve case decisions. Now, the responsible judge and her/his collegial panelists have the final say in most cases. The judges must sign off on their own decisions, and the court leaders cannot look into them or interfere.

At the same time, the “legitimate” influences from upper-level courts or government and Party organs have strengthened. Inside the judiciary, higher-level courts now have more say on appointing senior court officials and recruiting judges from lower-level courts.

From Fragmented to Comprehensive Control

Before the judicial reforms, the focus of control was on individual judges, through the approval of individual cases and the sign off of adjudicatory documents. This control mechanism was cumbersome and fragmented, with multiple layers of approvals within the judiciary system.

In contrast after the reform, the controls have become more responsive and effective. This is done by imposing comprehensive responsibilities for the judges, while allowing more room for them to make decisions. Control is further strengthened through guidelines and political doctrination. This allows the national leadership to penetrate their priorities more effectively into the administration layers inside the courts.

One SPC official has summarized this process as “releasing power, but not control” (放权不放任). The Party now stresses judicial transparency. Court cases are open to the general public to enhance the regime’s legitimacy. This way, the users of the judicial process, including the general public, can help the regime control the rank-and-file judges through additional public scrutiny and transparency. Together, these reform measures have tightened the Party-state’s grip over the judges.

THE CONTROL OVER JUDGES BEFORE AND AFTER THE REFORMS

Before the Reforms After the Reforms
Judges’ Decision Making Power Constrained Expanded
Responsibilities Moderate Broadened and Life-long
Internal Control Approval by Supervisors Key words, Guidelines, Adjudication Supervision, Political Indoctrination
External Control Appeals and Petitions Appeals and Petitions, the General Public via Judicial Transparency, the Supervision Commission
Loyalty Personal Loyalty to Supervisors Institutional Loyalty to the Party
Overall Fragmented, Multi-layered Direct, Comprehensive

Source: Xin He, “Pressures on Chinese Judges under Xi,China Journal, No. 85, pp. 65-66, 2021.

Conclusion

The Party has increased its control over the judiciary in part to better control the government and other political actors. The judiciary’s status has been slightly elevated vis-a-vis local government actors. And the Party’s control of the judiciary has only intensified under Xi. The reform measures cannot be easily changed, as they are now institutionalized.

The judiciary will not become independent. From the regime’s perspective, tightening the control over the judiciary and getting closer to Xi’s requirement of letting the general public feel justice have both been successful.