A new paper by Ying Sun and Hualing Fu
From the year 2014 a new round of judicial reform was launched in Chinese courts all over the country. For Chinese judges, the most significant change is the “quota reform”(员额制改革). The quota reform aims to professionalize the ranks of adjudicators: by edging out a given percentage of judges, only the better qualified judges would be re-appointed. The background of the quota reform is the plan to reduce the level and the intensity of both political and bureaucratic control over judges in adjudication and to decentralize judicial power to the rank and file judges only, restoring individualized judging while enhancing judicial accountability.
A keen interest in the details of the quota reform drew the author (Ying Sun) to conducting interviews and observations in Guangdong province, Henan province and other places. She gained first-hand insights into how the quota reform is implemented and how the judges saw it.
Before the reform, the number of judges in Chinese courts were calculated in three groups:
- the overall size of the judiciary, including judges, but also political and managerial staff and supporting personnel;
- the number of judges, i.e. those with proper judicial qualification and, importantly, the percentage of judges in the overall established judicial size; and
- the number of so-called “frontline judges” (yixian faguan一线法官), i.e. judges who actually adjudicate cases as judges and their percentage among judges excluding judges holding management positions who are assigned to non-judicial posts.
In 2002, nationwide, there were approximately 210,000 judges and 150,000 of them were frontliners.  The number and percentage of the frontline judges had remained stable (211,990 judges in 2014) prior to the reforms. A remaining three types of judges did little or no judging. The first group involved judges in management positions, including presidents, vice presidents and chief judges in professional chambers and their deputies; the second, judges who had transferred from professional chambers to political and administrative departments within the courts; the third, judges whose sole responsibility was to execute judgments. The long term objective of quota reform was to limit judgeship to judges whose principal job was to judge.
The reform caused a significant shake-up in the overall profile of the judiciary, with a large number of former judges ceasing to be judges. The court at hand however was able to absorb and neutralize the reform impact throughout its implementation.
First, the quota reform’s ambition to separate judges from administrators forced judges holding political and administrative offices to make a choice. And their choices were clear: the majority of them decided to stay in the administrative departments, while predictably few were willing to give up their status and ranking, especially those holding key positions.
Second, the quota reform unintentionally gave rise to a renewed exodus of middle career judges who left for law firms or other private sector employment. The trend of able judges leaving the judiciary for other careers was well-known, and the quota reform was intended to reign in the problem. However, by reducing the size of the judiciary and creating uncertainty among judges, the reform triggered another miniature exodus – judges, fearful of being left out and worried about the future prospect in an uncertain environment, seized the opportunity to leave the judiciary.
Third, the quota reform posed a significant challenge to courts as they had to contend with a sizeable group of judges who participated in the quota selection but failed and as a result were demoted to the rank of judicial assistants. They did so by offering a transition period, or grace period, during which some of the disqualified judges were allowed, de facto, to adjudicate as judges.
The centre-piece of judge quota reform was to free frontline judges from bureaucratic control in judicial decision that they used to be subjected to, and to abolish the vetting system that required judges to submit their draft opinions to leaders for approval, all to facilitate and promote individualised judging. And indeed, gradually, judging started to shift away from a collective endeavour with decisions subject to multiple layers of vetting and approval. The quota system was successful in placing individualised judging and accountability at the centre of adjudication in the vast majority of cases and in shifting the focus of judicial decisions from a fixation on the social impact of a decision to emphasis on its internal legal quality within an increasingly self-referencing judicial universe. With the new focus on the court-centric and rules-based dimension of judging, as the reforms require, judges do increasingly look for legal guidance to craft a decision. On the other hand, while the rise of individualised judging has created space for judges to deliberate individual cases, it does not reduce judicial accountability. Rather, it created an opportunity for reconfiguration of the control system. Riding on the tide of standardisation, a higher court is filling the gap that the reforms created at the local level and exercising real leadership.
Notwithstanding the fanfare, self-contradictions and tensions, the reforms have been muddled through to create a more identifiable, distinct judiciary. It is now well established that judges are those who judge, excluding political and administrative officers from holding the title of judgeship. The quota reform reflects the contradictions of judicial reform in a party-state. As the quota reform story testifies, the judiciary within a political system can explore spaces for its professionalization project – judges can judge on their own most of the time and in most of the cases. In that process, the Party could be both a helping and a restraining hand, and the bureaucratic system in which the court is an integral part creates both positive and negative incentives for the reform.
Ying Sun and Hualing Fu’s paper was published with The China Quarterly, find it here.
Dr. Ying Sun is an associate professor at the School of Law, Sun Yat-sen University, China. She teaches constitutional law and comparative legislatures. Her research interests include election process, the Chinese people’s congress system, judicial reform and law-making politics in China. Hualing Fu is the dean and the Warren Chan professor in human rights and responsibilities at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong. He specializes in public law and criminal law, with a focus on China, and cross-border legal relations in the Greater China region. His other research areas include the constitutional status of Hong Kong, in particular central–local relationships in the Hong Kong context and national security legislation.
 Xiao, Yang. 2002. “在全国法院队伍建设工作会议上的讲话” (Speech at the national conference on court personnel construction project), ChinaCourt.org, 8 July, https://www.chinacourt.org/article/detail/2002/07/id/7829.shtml. Accessed 16 September 2018.