How The Prc’s Judicial System Works


December 1978 witnessed the introduction of an ‘Open Policy’ in the PRC, which meant the government realized the importance of constructing a legal system which would correspond to the new nation’s ambitions. As a result, the Soviet-type legal system, which China had adopted in the 1950s, was discarded, thus paving way for a new legal system, which would be instrumental in providing orderly and efficient conduct of governance at all governmental levels, including central, provincial, as well as the local levels. The new legal system would also assist in facilitating domestic and commercial development as well as international trade and investments. At the same time, it would be used to suppress antisocial behavior and also assure greater equality and precision.

How PRC’s Judicial System Works

On July 1, 1979, the Second Session of the Fifth National Congress promulgated the Organic Law of the People’s Courts of the People’s Republic of China. With its amendment in 1983, it is actually the legislation that set out the hierarchy of the courts system. As a result, today China has a nationwide court system that is comprised of over 3000 courts as well as 200,000 judges.

Previously, the military and the police were charged with the task of administering this huge and inexperienced group. However, nowadays, law school graduates, who are honest, competent, impartial, and professional, have been incorporated. In this regard, the Supreme People’s Court today forms the highest state’s judiciary organ. It is led by a president, who is elected by a standing committee as well as the NPC. The court also has criminal, civil and economic departments.

Generally, the Supreme People’s Court, which includes over 340 judges, has authority over the local people’s courts at various levels, including the special courts. It mainly deals with the three kinds of cases, especially the first instance cases stated by laws. The court is also responsible for complaints and protests against judgments as well as orders of higher people’s courts. The PRC’s judicial system also consists of Higher People’s Courts, which are the courts of the provinces, autonomous regions as well as municipalities that are directly under the Central Government. They mainly deal with cases of first instances as well as cases of protests lodged by people’s procuratorates.

After the Higher People’s Courts, the next in hierarchy are the Intermediate People’s Courts. They are mostly established in the capital or prefectures on the provincial level. Judges at this level consider cases of the first instance that are assigned by laws as well as decrees. The next in the hierarchy are the Basic People’s Courts. They are actually the lowest level, and are located in the county, municipal districts as well as independent counties.

These courts usually set up people’s tribunals in accordance with conditions of the locality, population as well as the cases involved. China’s judicial system also contains the Special Courts. These include Military Courts, Railway Courts, Forestry Courts, Agriculture Court as well as Maritime Courts. All in all, according to China Human Rights,  over 8 million cases were filed in China between 2000 and 2005, thus indicating a litigation explosion.

Judicial Independence in China

The Chinese judiciary is usually disapproved due to lack of meaningful independence. Due to the fact that China is a single-party socialist state, in most cases, the party exercises some degree of influence over the courts. However, it should be noted that the courts are not party organs. Furthermore, the party has no control over every action of the courts. In this way, it does not determine the outcome of all the cases. This is seen in the article 3 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts of the PRC of 1979, amended in 1983, which grants the people’s courts the mandate to punish all criminals and settle disputes, and safeguard the system of dictatorship of the proletariat among other core aspects.

Public security branches are in charge of the people’s police, being the functional departments under the people’s government. They are charged with the responsibility of maintaining social as well as public order, conducting investigations of all kinds, including cases involving corruption. In many ways the judicial interpretations of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate are established in such a way that the Supreme People’s Court has the overall authority over judicial activities of the people’s procuratorates of lower levels all over China. The National People’s Congress has the power to elect and remove procurators. This ensures that those with bad reputation are eliminated.

The Changes in PRC’s Judicial System

The Qing Dynasty

Over the years, the judiciary system in the PRC has undergone some considerable evolution. For instance, during the Qing period, there was a magistrate, who was to hear even minor criminal cases. However, the local elders, as well as village leaders, were charged with the responsibility of handling a number of disputes. Again, under the Qing bureaucracy, mass lectures were organized to stress the Confucian principle of obedience. Censors were also appointed to investigate cases involving corruption as well as misconduct in high levels of government.

The Reforms

The period between Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 and the legal reforms of 1979 was a time when the courts were viewed by the leftists as wearisome and undependable. This was evident like it was in the case of Mao-China public trials, in which the accused were sentenced, often to death. As a result, most of the functions of these courts were handled by party or governments organs. However, there was a big change in 1979 when the National People’s Congress began restoring the judicial system. For instance, the world witnessed the reinstitution of the judicial system, especially in the showcase trial of the Gang of Four as well as other members of the “Lin-Jiang clique”. This took place between November 1980 and January 1981. The trial was instrumental in making all citizens to be equal before the law.

The Ministry of Justice, which was previously abolished in 1959, was re-established to oversee the re-established judicial system. It was charged with the responsibility of supervising personnel, providing training and funding the courts. Another key development in China’s judiciary system took place in 1999 when the Supreme Court issued the first five-year plan for reforming China’s courts. Additionally, another reform plan was issued in 2005 when a review of death-penalty cases was done with regard to Supreme People’s Court.

One of the main reasons as to why China is steadfast in ensuring judicial fairness and neutrality is to ensure it is consistent with the application of law as required by the World Trade Organization (WTO) system and principles. Additionally, the nation has improved its judiciary to establish confidence in the international community, in light of its economic growth in the international market.

However, in spite of these reforms, which include legal education as well as the training of judges, many experts reckon that the courts are still subject to party leadership. This is due to the fact that the leadership still has the authority to appoint lower level judges. Additionally, it is another stumbling block in China’s judiciary reforms due to the fact that the role of the courts is increasingly contested in the Chinese society at large.


It is worth noting that China is actually going through remarkable times in the way it is carrying out reforms in its legal system. In many ways, it has been quite successful in developing a credible legal system from scratch over the past three decades. The international community ought to encourage China even as it goes through major reforms in its judicial system.

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