Legal reform 法治改革

Judging judges

Tohelp build “the rule of law”, China is demoting judges


1 “I WAS tired of it. I did not like thepressure, so I chose freedom.” This is how a former Chinese judge describes hisdecision to quit as president of a provincial court and take up a new job inacademia. It would have helped if he had earned more. A judge with years ofcourt experience makes as much as a well-paid college graduate—a fraction ofwhat a lawyer could earn, or a law professor who does freelance work on theside. Hence many of China’s best-qualified court officials are quitting. Thegovernment, eager to show that it is building “rule of law”, is struggling tostop the haemorrhage.

2 Official statistics would seem to suggestthat China is not short of judges. There are said to be around 200,000 of them,or more than 14 per 100,000 inhabitants. Each Chinese court has an average ofaround 60. By comparison, litigiousAmerica has 11 judges per 100,000 citizens. But in China many of those describedas judges work in administrative roles, and many do not have law degrees.Well-qualified judges have thus found their caseloads soaring—but not their pay. They still earnthe same as back-office colleagues who also, inappropriately,enjoy the title of judge. To the chagrin, nodoubt, of some, President Xi Jinping’s fierce campaign against corruption,launched when he came to power three years ago, has reduced opportunities fortaking backhanders.

3 Mr Xi’s anti-graft drive is part of acampaign to convince a cynical public that the Communist Party is bound by thelaw and wants it to be applied fairly. To achieve this, he is trying to reformthe courts to allow justice to be dispensed more swiftly and impartially.Officials have been threatened with punishment if they interfere with cases.The pay of proper judges will be boosted substantially. The size of theincrease has not been made public, but it is expected to be at least 50% atfirst. And their status will, in effect, be enhanced by downgrading the titlesof lesser judges.

Not so easy 没那么简单

4 At a meeting of court officials in July, adeputy chief of the Supreme Court, Shen Deyong, said there would be “a seriesof challenges and difficulties” in implementing reforms. But he said thattargets for sifting the ranks of judges would be strictly enforced. He orderedcourts to begin evaluating their staff to see who should make the grade. In Shanghai, courts have been ordered toretain only a third of their judges. The rest are to be given new, morefitting, titles, such as “legal assistant” and “administrative officer”.

5 Given the heavy-handed way Mr Xi hastightened his personal grip on the levers of power, suppressed the media and intimidatedindependent lawyers, it is easy to doubt his commitment to the rule of law. ButSusan Finder, an expert on China’s legal system based in Hong Kong, says thatthe reforms are nonetheless making a difference. The majority of court cases,she notes, do not touch on politically sensitive issues of the kind thatindependent lawyers often like to take up, such as abuses of power by localofficials. It is therefore possible to improve the judiciary (not least in theeyes of the public) without threatening the party’s grip on power.

6 In political cases, few doubt the partywill continue to put its thumb on the scales of justice. It does this through“political and legal committees” which co-ordinate the work of the police,prosecutors and judiciary at every level. The power of these committees reacheda peak under Zhou Yongkang, who was the leader of the party’s most powerfulbody of this kind between 2007 and his retirement in 2012. Despite the recentsentencing of Mr Zhou to life imprisonment in a sensational corruption case,there is no sign that Mr Xi wants to abolish the committees—even if he wouldlike to reduce their involvement in the decision-making of courts.

7 In civil and commercial cases, officialsoften interfere to protect their own interests, or those of friends or family.This causes much public resentment and is the main reason why thousands ofpetitioners head to Beijing every year to seek redress from the centralgovernment—a potential cause of social unrest that alarms the authorities. Lastmonth measures were enacted that prohibit courts from heeding requests from “any organisation or individual”that would impede judicial fairness. Courts must now record and report promptly and fully on such requests, even oral ones, “so thatthe entire process leaves a trail, permanently preserved”.

8 To shield courts further from interference,responsibility for judges’ salaries and job assignments will shift from governments at the samelevel to higher-level ones. These are considered less likely to have a stake in the verdicts.为了进一步保护法院不受干扰,有关法官薪水和工作安排等职责从同级政府向高一级转移,因为高一级政府通常与下级法院判刑不太可能有利益关系。

9 The reforms should greatly improve theworking environment for those judges who keep their titles, as should theincrease in salaries. That they are urgently needed is evident: in Shanghaialone, according to state media, 86 judges resigned last year—half of them withadvanced degrees in law. The majority were younger judges who were among the system’s most highly prized. Between January and the end of March,another 18 had quit, amid double-digit growth in the number of cases beinghandled by the city’s courts.改革应该大幅提升保有头衔的法官的工作环境和薪金水平。很明显,政府十分需要做出这些改变——就上海市而言,据官方媒体报道,去年有86位法官辞职,其中半数有高级法学学位。这些辞职法官中大都在体制内备受推崇而年龄却不大。在一月到三月末,上海法院需要处理的案件数量以双位数增长,但却又有18位法官其间辞职。

10 As the title adjustments get under way,those who fail to makethe cutwill face a difficult choice: stay on with their diminished status or seekemployment elsewhere. Coming out on the losing end of the evaluation processmay not be a stellar credential. But the value of their powerful connectionsshould still be worth something in the job market.当头衔评定进行时,那些没有符合标准的人将面临两难选择:是继续在他们缩水的岗位上待着,还是另谋高就。虽然评定不及格的人在跳槽选择时也许不再能沾法院的光了,但他们强大的关系网在人才市场中还是有其价值的