China Judgments Online, a database of legal documents run by the Supreme People’s Court, has removed nearly all administrative proceeding verdicts from its website. It is a major retreat from an earlier era of judicial transparency ushered in by the inauguration of the CJO database in 2013. Administrative proceedings are generally suits brought by ordinary citizens against state agencies. Their removal mirrors the quiet removal of an untold number of other verdicts, civil and criminal, that scholars have tracked since 2021. A WeChat blog @行政诉讼案例 (In English, “Administrative Case Law”) run by a practicing lawyer in Heilongjiang Province broke the news of the databases removal of the cases. The blog revealed that only 31 verdicts are still available online, a decrease from the 554,534 that were available in 2019:
Starting in September 2022, I found that I was unable to log on to China Judgments Online (CJO). The official explanation was that the system was undergoing updates. Yet, a few days later, after the CJO update was completed, I found that verdicts on administrative proceedings were no longer available on the site! Another few days later, verdicts on administrative proceedings gradually began to reappear on CJO. Later, fans of this blog said the real explanation [for their removal] was that hostile forces had been using verdicts from successful suits against administrative agencies to write essays and articles. In response, the court system reviewed all administrative cases in order to remove sensitive cases from the database before the opening of the 20th Party Congress. Other fans held that the reason for the mass removal was that conflicting verdicts in similar administrative-proceedings cases were having a negative effect on the reputation of the courts. But whatever the reason, the number of [publicly available] verdicts on administrative proceedings is dwindling quickly. All of the cases I’ve shared on this WeChat blog were downloaded from the CJO database. After the system was updated, I found that many of the verdicts that went against administrative agencies could no longer be found! By 2023, nearly all of the verdicts on administrative proceedings were no longer available to the public on CJO. As of March, only 31 such verdicts are still available.
[…] “Administrative proceedings” are colloquially known as “people suing the government.” The plaintiff and the defendant, then, occupy unequal positions. Since the administrative-proceedings system was instituted in the 1990s, it has been the subject of many complaints. It’s difficult to file an administrative procedure case, hard to win one, and even harder to enforce a ruling. With these three great obstacles to surmount, almost all plaintiffs in administrative proceedings complain that the court and administrative agencies are in cahoots and that the court is a black box in such lawsuits.
[…] Because I work on cases of administrative procedure and administrative reconsideration, I log on to CJO daily to conduct case law research and search for precedents. Since 2020, I have compiled a list of over 2000 administrative proceedings related to eminent domain, illegal construction, petitions, [access to] government information, administrative reconsideration, and other topics, encompassing 15 types of lawsuits. I have benefited tremendously from studying these cases. They have broadened my perspective and improved my ability to handle administrative proceedings. I have deepened my knowledge of the law through CJO’s open database of verdicts on administrative proceedings. A good case document can provide endless benefits for lawyers like me. Although no two cases are identical, case types exhibit distinctive patterns. Therefore, I focus my document searches on cases that share certain characteristic patterns. Taken together, these documents provide insight into the reasoning behind judgments. I focus on the legal reasoning in these cases: how did the judge apply the law? There is no single standard answer to this, but being able to examine the legal reasoning behind the verdicts is helpful. The legal precedents in these cases have been extremely influential in my handling of cases of administrative procedure and administrative reconsideration. In 2020, I took on an eminent domain case that asked whether the lessee of the commercial property in question was a stakeholder in the conflict [and thus had rights to remuneration]. The first trial held that they were. The appeal held that they were not. The case then moved to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). The plaintiff sought me out to ask whether there was any chance of winning the case. At the time, the presiding judge of the SPC was Wang Xiaobin. I did some research on his legal reasoning in many similar cases, and found that he often ruled against the government in eminent domain cases when he thought the lessee was a stakeholder in the conflict. After reading the presiding judge’s previous rulings, I instantly became more confident in our case. Preparing the materials for the appeal and applying to the SPC took a year and a half. In the end, the SPC vacated the provincial court’s decision and issued a remand. The plaintiff received commensurate compensation. This anecdote illustrates that when researching cases, it is best to search for legal precedents in which the presiding judge or higher court has dealt with a similar case. These precedents will be incredibly helpful for you. And it’s not always true that the higher the ruling court, the more helpful the case will be [in your preparation]. Rather, it’s better to look at verdicts issued by the court currently handling the case, or the court directly above it. As the saying goes, “Real power lies with the sheriff, not the Supreme Court.” If you cite SPC case precedent to a grassroots level judge, he might completely ignore you, because he knows your case will never reach the SPC. But if you cite case precedent from his court or the one directly above his, he might take it quite seriously, because he’d be worried that his ruling might be vacated in a subsequent appeal! If you cite a case that he personally has presided over, the effects are even better. People have great trouble contradicting themselves. The more you cite his own verdict, the more he’ll be pleased with it and convinced it’s correct.
[…] Lastly, I hope that the courts at all levels will reinstate the public disclosure of verdicts on administrative proceedings. I have a personal interest, because this WeChat account “Administrative Case Law” needs more source material to work with. But there is a public interest as well. Greater transparency and standardization of the legal procedures behind administrative litigation will encourage supervising judges to rule on the basis of the law and will help average citizens to defend their legitimate legal rights in administrative proceedings. [Chinese]
In 2020, the database housed over 100 million documents. In its heyday, CJO was hailed for shedding light on China’s sometimes opaque legal system. In 2020, the site started requiring a phone number, tied to Chinese citizens’ ID cards, to register. By 2021, the number of new cases added to the database dropped by 80% and millions of documents were quietly removed during an unexplained “migration” process, including all death penalty verdicts issued by the Supreme People’s Court. Politically sensitive cases were the subject of special attention. The case of a man who stood in Tiananmen Square while wearing a t-shirt commemorating the 1989 Beijing Massacre on its 30th anniversary was erased from CJO, as were at least 600 speech crime cases related to dissent about the zero-COVID policy. The rationale for the case removals has not been publicly explained—but eye-brow raising incidents of bureaucratic conflict have spilled into the open. In 2022, the Liaoning branch of the Cyberspace Administration of China warned the CJO against violating unspecified internet regulations. At ChinaFile in February that year, Luo Jiajun and Thomas Kellogg, both of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, examined the driving forces behind the decreasing transparency of China Judgments Online:
A closer look at some of the cases that have been removed, however, suggests a different set of concerns. It seems clear that the SPC views certain kinds of cases as embarrassing to the Party: Some of the purged cases highlight official corruption or illustrate the Party’s use of the criminal justice system to crack down on its critics. Other cases present an unflattering view of Chinese society, and have likely been removed for that reason. In other words, the SPC wants its transparency mechanisms to paint a picture of a fair and benevolent CCP, and a healthy and wholesome Chinese society. Many verdicts that cut against that idyll have been removed.
[…] Other targeted searches we conducted—as well as those by other researchers—over the past few months reveal a similar pattern of large-scale purging of cases, and also highlight exactly which terms and which crimes the court system has targeted for removal. First, judgments containing key terms that China’s leadership deems “sensitive,” such as “Twitter,” “freedom of speech,” “rumor,” “feminism,” and “national leaders,” have been almost completely eliminated from CJO. Second, many verdicts involving certain kinds of crimes have been removed, including not just “picking quarrels,” but also political crimes such as subversion and morally fraught crimes such as blackmail. Third, many controversial cases have been removed. This seems especially true for cases that have been the subject of public scrutiny in ways that reflect badly on either the Party itself or on Chinese society as a whole. One district court in Anhui province went even further: It simply removed all of its criminal cases from the database.
A June 2021 judicial corruption case from Shandong province, initially posted to CJO but removed less than two weeks later, is one of many cases that cast an unflattering light on the Party-state. On June 8, a vice president and two fellow judges in the intermediate court in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, were convicted of bribery after taking millions of renminbi from over 60 lawyers from different law firms over several years. The case highlighted systemic judicial corruption that included a number of key players, including judges, lawyers, large corporations, and state-owned enterprises. Lawyers caught up in the scandal included top members of the provincial-level lawyers’ association and well-known legal academics, which suggested that bribery had permeated both the court system and the legal profession up to the very highest levels in the province. After the scandal attracted national media attention, the verdicts in the case were removed from the CJO database, and further media reporting on the case abruptly ceased, most likely on orders from the propaganda authorities.
The seeming roll back of transparency in administrative proceedings has potentially serious political implications. At Foreign Affairs, Yale Law School professor Taisu Zhang wrote that the Party-state is increasingly turning to “legality” as a source of legitimacy, as opposed to the realization of a socialist policy program or cheap nationalism:
Laws can be employed to control or oppress, just as they can be used to protect individual rights and freedoms. Insofar as laws are expressions of its leadership’s political will, the party has an interest in enforcing them systemically and rigorously, especially if it wants firmer control over its local agents. In other words, it has an interest in investing in technical “legality,” even if it has none in political liberalization.
[…] The benefits of this emphasis on legality extend far beyond controlling local officials or increasing social conformity. They potentially provide an entirely separate source of political legitimacy that does not rely on economic performance: that government behavior is increasingly legalistic can be a source of social trust in and of itself. As generations of social scientists have observed, many human societies have a tendency to “accept law as reason,” to see legality as an inherent reason to accept state action. This acceptance may or may not be morally justifiable, but it is a recurrent phenomenon even in—and perhaps especially in—nondemocratic, illiberal societies.
Recent research increasingly suggests that this phenomenon exists in China, as well. Surveys show, for example, that the Chinese urban population responds positively to institutional reforms that enhance the legal professionalism of government policy, even when those reforms restrict, rather than protect, individual rights and freedoms. The Chinese government certainly seems to think that legality can be a major source of political legitimacy: recently, whenever there has been a strong wave of public unhappiness against local government action—for example, after a major scandal in 2022, in which officials in Henan Province attempted to stop a run on local banks by imposing pandemic lockdowns—the central government’s response was to reemphasize the importance of “governing the country according to law” and to promise more legal training for local officials. Clearly, it is betting that further investment in legality, rhetorically and substantively, can directly fortify public confidence in government action.