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The Court of Mass Appeal

Author: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies
April 4, 2009
South China Morning Post


On March 25, China's Supreme People's Court ("SPC") released its Third Five-Year Reform Program for the People's Courts. Its predecessor was issued in late 2005, toward the end of the second year of the period in question. By contrast, the Third Program has appeared promptly. Its text is dense, largely abstract and suffused with exhortations to the immediate audience-the country's judges-to study, promote, establish, prescribe, improve, reform, perfect, strengthen, regularize, implement and complete whatever ought to be done to benefit every aspect of the judicial system. Although not nearly as detailed in its recommendations as the Second Program, it does offer some specific proposals as well as a comprehensive list of problems requiring attention. Most important, it provides further confirmation of the Communist Party's recent renewal of the "mass line" in political-legal affairs after a decade of judicial emphasis on professionalism that occasionally pushed the envelope of Party tolerance.

Running any country's judicial system is a challenge, but China's may be the world's most daunting. The sheer numbers involved are mind-boggling: a population of 1.3 billion inhabiting a vast land mass; almost 200,000 judges plus roughly as many court staff; over 3,100 basic courts, some 406 intermediate courts, 32 high courts and an SPC that itself has hundreds of judges who both deal with individual cases and handle research, guidance and administration for the entire system. Last year witnessed huge increases in judicial burdens. Courts were called upon to dispose of almost eleven million cases, an unprecedented number and undoubted reflection of not only China's stunning development but also the increasingly complex tensions that such progress and the recent economic downturn have spawned.

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