Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 November 2019
Courts in China are often criticized for lacking ‘independence’ from the Chinese party-state. Entrenched perceptions of interference in the judiciary by the political branches of government have continued to fuel public resentment in recent years, risking the legitimacy of the party-state. Such criticisms, however, often fail to appreciate the complex political reality in China and the evolving role of Chinese courts following China's incremental legal reforms since the reform era. What does ‘judicial independence’ mean in the context of a socialist rule of law state such as China? More importantly, can we identify the touchstone of ‘independence’ that should be intrinsic in any judicial institution? In recognition of the resilience of the Chinese party-state in the foreseeable future, the authors contend that widening the scope of judicial independence, as conceptualized herein, in line with China's ongoing judicial reforms provides a better tool for promoting economic development and good governance and enhancing the state's legitimacy in a dominant party state. In this regard, insights are drawn from Singapore, which presents two broad lessons for China: first, a rule of law framework can be established in which the state in a non-Western liberal democracy respects the autonomy of the courts and the judiciary strictly enforces the law enacted by the state within its institutional limits; second, judicial pragmatism in the exercise of judicial power enables the courts to ensure that governmental power is exercised in accordance with the principle of legality, which ensures good governance in a polity governed by a strong state. Contrary to claims that such reforms may serve as an apology for power in China, it is hoped that such reforms may lay the foundation for normative constitutionalism in the future.
Research Associate, Centre for Asian Legal Studies, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.
Director, Asian Law Institute and Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.
Prior versions of this article were presented at the workshop on ‘Political Parties, Partisanship, and the Constitution’ at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, University of Oxford in 2019, the conference on ‘Judicial Cooperation and Judicial Reform in China’ at the City University of Hong Kong in 2019, and the conference on ‘Judicial Reform and Political Development in China’ at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2013. The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers, fellow academic colleagues, Dr Ewan Smith, Professor Arun Thiruvengadam, as well as the participants in the said workshops for their helpful comments, and the Centre for Asian Legal Studies at the NUS Faculty of Law for its support and funding.
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138. Ministry of Finance, ‘Revenue and Expenditure Estimates’ (19 Feb 2018) 37 <www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/data/budget_2018/download/15%20Judicature%202018.pdf> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
139. Sundaresh Menon (Chief Justice of Singapore), ‘Inspiring Confidence in the Courts through Independence, Integrity and Competence’ (Welcome address delivered at the 5th Roundtable Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Judicial Reform Forum, 31 Oct 2013) para 17 <www.apjrf.com/'Inspiring%20Confidence%20in%20the%20Courts%20through%20Independence,%20Integrity%20and%20Competence'%20-%20Welcome%20Address%20by%20Chief%20Justice%20Menon.pdf> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
140. Tan (n 125) 295.
141. State Courts Act (Cap 321, Rev Ed 2007), ss 9–10.
142. Singapore Constitution, art 111.
143. ‘Structure of the Singapore Legal Service’ (Legal Service Commission) <www.lsc.gov.sg/structure/structure-of-legal-service> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
144. Singapore Parliament, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill, 16 Jul 2007, Singapore Parliament Reports, vol 83, cols 1080–1082 (Professor Jayakumar). When a transfer of a State Court judge 30 years ago was alleged to have been the result of executive interference, a Commission of Inquiry was constituted which revealed that the transfer had been ordered by the Chief Justice on his own accord and not as a result of any instructions from the executive: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Executive Interference in the Subordinate Courts (Cmd 12 of 1986, presented to Parliament on 17 Jul 1986) (Singapore National Printers 1986).
145. International Bar Association, ‘Prosperity versus individual rights? Human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Singapore’ (Jul 2008) <https://www.ibanet.org/Human_Rights_Institute/Work_by_regions/Asia_Pacific/Singapore.aspx> accessed 3 Sep 2019. See however Ministry of Law, ‘Response to IBA Human Rights Institute's Report’ (Press release, 9 Jul 2008) <www.mlaw.gov.sg/news/press-releases/response-to-iba-human-rights-institute-s-report.html> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
146. World Justice Project, ‘Rule of Law Index 2019’ (2019) 16 <https://worldjusticeproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/WJP-ROLI-2019-Single%20Page%20View-Reduced.pdf> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
147. World Economic Forum, ‘The Global Competitiveness Report 2018’ (2018) 513 <www3.weforum.org/docs/GCR2018/05FullReport/TheGlobalCompetitivenessReport2018.pdf> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
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153. Supreme People's Court (n 15) 61–65.
154. See 最高人民法院关于案例指导工作的规定 [Provisions of the Supreme People's Court Concerning Work on Case Guidance], 法发〔2010〕51号 (passed by the Adjudication Committee of the Supreme People's Court on 15 Nov 2010, issued on and effective as of 26 Nov 2010), English translation available at <http://cgc.law.stanford.edu/guidingcases-rules/20101126-english/> accessed 3 Sep 2019; 〈最高人民法院关于案例指导工作的规定〉实施细则 [Detailed Implementing Rules on the ‘Provisions of the Supreme People's Court Concerning Work on Case Guidance’], 法发〔2015〕130号 (passed by the Adjudication Committee of the Supreme People's Court on 27 Apr 2015, issued on and effective as of 13 May 2015), English translation available at <http://cgc.law.stanford.edu/guiding-cases-rules/20150513-english/> accessed 20 Jul 2019; ‘Chinese Common Law: Guiding Cases and Judicial Reform’ (2016) 129 Harvard Law Review 2213Google Scholar. See also ‘最高人民法院发布第18批指导性案例 [The Supreme People's Court Issues the 18th Batch of Guiding Cases]’ (Press release of the Supreme People's Court, 27 Jun 2018) <www.court.gov.cn/zixun-xiangqing-104242.html> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
155. Taisu Zhang, ‘Disaggregating the Court: A Methodological Survey of Research on the Supreme People's Court of China’ (2017) 2 China Law and Society Review 154, 155; 孟高飞（Meng Gaofei）， ‘论党对地方法院组织领导的法治化变革 [On the Rule of Law Oriented Reform of Party Leadership in Local Courts]’, (2017) 4 学术交流 [Academic Exchange] 89–95. Xi Jinping has emphasized repeatedly that China's legal system must maintain ‘the Party's absolute leadership’: ‘习近平就政法工作作出重要指示 [Xi Jinping Makes Important Instructions on Political-Legal Work]’ (新华社 [Xinhua News], 22 Jan 2018) <www.gov.cn/xinwen/2018-01/22/content_5259394.htm> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
156. 法官行为规范 [Judicial Code of Conduct], 法发 (2010) 54号 (issued by the Supreme People's Court and effective as of 6 Dec 2010), art 1.
157. 中华人民共和国法官法 [Judges Law of the People's Republic of China], adopted on 28 Feb 1995 by the National People's Congress Standing Committee, as amended on 23 Apr 2019, arts 11 & 14.
158. Li (n 50) 49–51.
160. Li (n 50) 37.
161. See generally Peerenboom (n 12).
162. Ng & He (n 119) 3–20. The authors distinguish Chinese courts into ‘work-units’ and ‘firm-units’ depending on each court's immediate institutional environment, with the former prioritizing efficiency and output, and the latter more likely to invoke the law as part of the decision-making process.
163. Fu (n 19) 178–179.
164. Zhang & Ginsburg (n 62) 21
165. Maurits Elen, ‘Interview: Jerome Cohen’ (The Diplomat, 1 Sep 2016) <https://thediplomat.com/2016/09/interview-jerome-cohen/> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
166. Suli, Zhu, ‘The Party and the Courts’, in Peerenboom, Randall (ed), Judicial Independence in China: Lessons for Global Rule of Law Promotion (Cambridge University Press 2010) 53Google Scholar.
167. 王胜俊 (Wang Shengjun) (President, Supreme People's Court of China), ‘最高人民法院工作报告 [Supreme People's Court Work Report to the National People's Congress]’ (delivered at the 1st Meeting of the 12th National People's Congress, 10 Mar 2013) <http://www.court.gov.cn/zixun-xiangqing-82552.html> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
170. ‘Weiquan’ lawyers, or ‘rights-protection’ lawyers, refers to the small group of lawyers and legal scholars who assist Chinese citizens in asserting their legal rights, often against the government. See generally Hualing, Fu & Cullen, Richard, ‘Climbing the Weiquan Ladder: A Radicalizing Process for Rights-Protection Lawyers’ (2011) 205 The China Quarterly 40CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Hualing, Fu, ‘Challenging Authoritarianism through Law: Potentials and Limits’ (2011) 6 National Taiwan University Law Review 339Google Scholar.
171. Liebman, Benjamin, ‘Legal Reform: China's Law-Stability Paradox’ (2014) 143 Daedalus 96, 96, 100CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Liebman, Benjamin L, ‘Authoritarian Justice in China: Is There a “Chinese Model”?’, in Weitseng, Chen (ed) The Beijing Consensus? How China has Changed Western Ideas of Law and Economic Development (Cambridge University Press 2017) 234–235Google Scholar.
172. Ng & He (n 119) 21–22.
173. Fu (n 170) 353–354.
175. Fu (n 19) 174, 181.
176. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China (Foreign Language Press 2014) 161.
177. Trevaskes, Susan, ‘Weaponising the Rule of Law in China’, in Sapio, Flora et al. (eds), Justice: The China Experience (Cambridge University Press 2017) 114Google Scholar; Backer, Larry Catá, ‘Between the Judge and the Law: Judicial Independence and Authority with Chinese Characteristics’ (2017) 33 Connecticut Journal of International Law 1, 29Google Scholar.
178. 中华人民共和国行政诉讼法 [Administrative Litigation Law], adopted on 4 Apr 1989 by the National People's Congress; revised on 1 Nov 2014 and 27 June 2017 by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress）(Administrative Litigation Law), art 12. The concept of ‘specific administrative acts’ was removed and replaced with ‘administrative acts’ in the 2014 revision of the Administrative Litigation Law.
179. 全国人民代表大会常务委员会关于修改《中华人民共和国行政诉讼法》的决定 [Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on Amending the Administrative Litigation Law of the People's Republic of China], adopted by the National People's Congress Standing Committee on 1 Nov 2014 <http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2014-11-01/211731080827.shtml> accessed 3 Sep 2019. The revision was likely intended to address some of China's most imperative socio-political problems.
180. He, Xin, ‘The Party's Leadership as a Living Constitution in China’, in Ginsburg, Tom & Simpser, Alberto (eds), Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge University Press 2014) 156Google Scholar.
181. Normative documents refer to the regulatory or policy documents issued by governments that are not formal rules or regulations of general binding force, but still impose binding obligations on citizens.
182. Administrative Litigation Law (n 178), art 64.
183. 最高人民法院关于适用《中华人民共和国行政诉讼法》的解释 [Judicial Interpretations of the Supreme People's Court of China on the Application of the Administrative Litigation Law of the People's Republic of China], 法释（2008）1号，adopted on 13 Nov 2017 and effective as of 8 Feb 2018 <http://www.court.gov.cn/zixun-xiangqing-80342.html> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
185. Wei Cui, Jie Cheng & Dominika Wiesner, ‘Judicial Review of Government Actions in China’ (SSRN, 31 May 2018) 19 <https://ssrn.com/abstract=3228175> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
186. 习近平（Xi Jinping）, ‘决胜全面建成小康社会夺取新时代中国特色社会主义伟大胜利 [Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era]’, report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, 18 Oct 2017, Part VI: 4, <www.chinadaily.com.cn/interface/flipboard/1142846/2017-11-06/cd_34188086.html> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
187. ibid. See also ‘全国人大常委会已开始对合宪性审查进行研究部署 [The National People's Congress Standing Committee Has Already Started Work on How to Implement Constitutionality Review]’ (法制日报 [Legal Daily], 16 Jan 2018) <http://www.xinhuanet.com/legal/2018-01/16/c_1122263379.htm> accessed 3 Sep 2019. While it is not the first time that constitutional review has entered into the legal discourse in China, this was the first time this issue was discussed in the CCP's ‘highest-level’ document.
188. ‘推进合宪性审查 完善宪法监督制度 [Promoting Constitutionality Review, Perfecting the System of Constitutional Compliance]’ (中国青年报 [China Youth Daily], 24 Oct 2017) <http://cpc.people.com.cn/19th/n1/2017/1024/c414305-29605827.html> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
189. K Shanmugam, ‘The Rule of Law in Singapore’  Singapore Journal of Legal Studies 357; Menon (n 107) 417–420.
190. Shanmugam (n 189) 358–360.
192. World Bank, ‘GDP per capita (current US$)’ <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?end=2017&locations=MY-SG-Z4&start=1960> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
193. Tan (n 130) 228, 262.
196. World Economic Forum (n 147) 513.
197. World Bank, ‘Doing Business 2018: Reforming to Create Jobs’ (2018) 191 <www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/media/Annual-Reports/English/DB2018-Full-Report.pdf> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
198. Shanmugam (n 189) 358.
199. See Sundaresh Menon (Chief Justice of Singapore), ‘Executive Power: Rethinking the Modalities of Control’ (Annual Bernstein Lecture in Comparative Law, Duke University School of Law, 1 Nov 2018) para 62 <www.supremecourt.gov.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/(bernstein-lecture-2018)-lecture-(final)-(amended-16-november-2018).pdf> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
200. See eg Nagaenthran a/l K Dharmalingam v Public Prosecutor  SGCA 37 .
201. Chan (n 79) 242–243.
204. Menon (n 199) para 65.
205. Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs  SGCA 16,  2 SLR(R) 525.
206. Tan Seet Eng v Attorney-General  SGCA 59,  1 SLR 779.
207. Internal Security Act (Cap 143, 1985 Rev Ed), s 8.
208. Chng Suan Tze (n 205) .
209. ibid . The Court noted that under the ‘objective’ test, ‘it has to be shown to the court that considerations of national security were involved’, but ‘[t]hose responsible for national security are the sole judges of what action is necessary in the interests of national security’: –.
212. Singapore Parliament, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill, 25 Jan 1989, Singapore Parliament Reports, vol 52, cols 465–473 (Minister for Law (Prof S Jayakumar)).
213. Teo Soh Lung (n 210) –, , –.
214. Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (Cap 67, Rev Ed 2000).
215. Tan Seet Eng (n 206) , –.
216. Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘MHA Statement on Detention of Dan Tan Seet Eng’ (5 Dec 2015) <https://www.mha.gov.sg/newsroom/press-release/news/mha-statement-on-detention-of-dan-tan-seet-eng> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
217. Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘MHA Statement on Three Members of Match-fixing Syndicate Released from Detention and Placed on Police Supervision Orders’ (18 Jan 2016) <https://www.mha.gov.sg/newsroom/press-release/news/mha-statement-on-three-members-of-match-fixing-syndicate-released-from-detention-and-placed-on-police-supervision-orders> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
218. Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Second Reading of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Bill - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law’ (6 Feb 2018) <https://www.mha.gov.sg/NewsRoom/in-parliament/parliamentary-speeches/news/second-reading-of-the-criminal-law-(temporary-provisions)-(amendment)-bill---speech-by-mr-k-shanmugam-minister-for-home-affairs-and-minister-for-law> accessed 3 Sep 2019.
219. Chan (n 112) 471–472, 479–480.
220. Menon (n 107) 421.
221. Ramalingam Ravinthran v Attorney-General  SGCA 2,  2 SLR 49.
222. Yong Vui Kong v Attorney-General  SGCA 9,  2 SLR 1189.
223. Vellama d/o Marie Muthu v Attorney-General  SGCA 39,  4 SLR 1.
224. Chan Sek Keong, ‘The Courts and the Rule of Law in Singapore’  Singapore Journal of Legal Studies 209, 216.
225. In one instance when the High Court struck down a provision of the Prevention of Corruption Act (Cap 241, Rev Ed 1993), it was overturned on appeal: Public Prosecutor v Taw Cheng Kong  SGCA 37,  2 SLR(R) 489.
226. Thio Li-ann, ‘Principled Pragmatism and the “Third Wave” of Communitarian Judicial Review in Singapore’, in Jaclyn L Neo (ed), Constitutional Interpretation in Singapore: Theory and Practice (Routledge 2017) 49.
227. Lim Meng Suang v Attorney-General  SGCA 53,  1 SLR 26  (emphasis in original).
228. Menon (n 199).
229. Tan Seet Eng (n 206) .
230. Lim Meng Suang (n 227) –.
231. Yap (n 210) 1–2.
232. Taw Cheng Kong (n 225); Yong Vui Kong (n 222).
233. Tan Seet Eng (n 206) –.
234. Yong Vui Kong v Public Prosecutor  SGCA 20,  3 SLR 489; Rajeevan Edakalavan v Public Prosecutor  SGHC 2,  1 SLR(R) 10.
235. Thio, Li-ann, ‘Protecting Rights’, in Thio, Li-ann & Tan, Kevin YL (eds), Evolution of a Revolution (Routledge-Cavendish 2010)Google Scholar. See Public Prosecutor v Mazlan bin Maidun  SGCA 90,  3 SLR(R) 968; Colin Chan v Public Prosecutor  SGHC 207,  3 SLR(R) 209.
236. Review Publishing Co Ltd v Lee Hsien Loong  SGCA 46,  1 SLR 52 –.
237. Chee Siok Chin v Minister for Home Affairs  SGHC 216,  1 SLR(R) 582.
238. Lim Meng Suang (n 227); Jeyaretnam Kenneth Andrew v Attorney-General  SGCA 56,  1 SLR 345.
239. Tan Seet Eng (n 206) .
240. Singapore Parliament, Independence and Integrity of Singapore's Judiciary, 2 Nov 1995, Singapore Parliament Reports, vol 65, col 236 (Senior Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew) (emphasis added).
241. Chan (n 112) 471.
242. Shetreet, Shimon, ‘Judicial Independence and Judicial Review of Government Action: Necessary Institutional Characteristics and the Appropriate Scope of the Judicial Function’, in Forsyth, Christopher et al. (eds), Effective Judicial Review: A Cornerstone of Good Governance (Oxford University Press 2010) 199Google Scholar.
243. Arguably, the separation of powers in the Madisonian tradition has historically been somewhat a legal fiction even in polities defined by the principle. See Levinson, Daryl J & Pildes, Richard H, ‘Separation of Parties, Not Powers’ (2006) 119 Harvard Law Review 2311Google Scholar.
244. See generally Backer, Larry Catá, ‘The Party as Polity, The Communist Party, and the Chinese Constitutional State: A Theory of State-Party Constitutionalism’ (2009) 16 Journal of Chinese and Comparative Law 101Google Scholar.
245. See discussion in Part I above.
246. Dicey, Albert V, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, 8 ed (Macmillan 1927) 402Google Scholar. See the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which was passed by the UK Parliament to institutionalize the independence of the judiciary by establishing new lines of demarcation between the executive and the judiciary and creating the Supreme Court which was separate from Parliament. Even at a time when the English judiciary was not fully separate from the Crown, the autonomy of the courts was made clear in one of the earliest cases by the English court in 1607 on the basis of the fundamental distinction between executive and judicial power: Prohibitions del Roy (1607) 12 Co Rep 63; 77 ER 1342.
247. This is the case in Europe: Sweet, Alec Stone, ‘Constitutional Courts’, in Rosenfeld, Michel & Sajó, András (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press 2012) 818Google Scholar; Bell, John, Boyron, Sophie & Whittaker, Simon, Principles of French Law (Oxford University Press 2008) 39–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Merryman, John Henry & Pérez-Perdomo, Rogelio, The Civil Law Tradition: An Introduction to the Legal Systems of Europe and Latin America (Stanford University Press 2007) 34–47Google Scholar.
248. See generally Backer (n 244).
249. Zhu (n 166) 57.
250. Cf Neo, Jaclyn L, ‘Balancing Act: The Balancing Metaphor as Deference and Dialogue in Constitutional Adjudication’, in Neo, Jaclyn L (ed), Constitutional Interpretation in Singapore: Theory and Practice (Routledge 2017) 96–97Google Scholar. See also Menon (n 37) paras 53, 57.
251. Cf Neo (n 250) 96–97.
252. See Chan (n 79) 249.
253. Backer (n 177) 29.
254. Menon (n 107) 420–421.
255. Menon (n 199) para 43.
256. Yulin, Fu & Peerenboom, Randall, ‘A New Analytic Framework for Understanding and Promoting Judicial Independence in China’, in Peerenboom, Randall (ed), Judicial Independence in China: Lessons for Global Rule of Law Promotion (Cambridge University Press 2010) 132–133Google Scholar.
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259. Yap (n 210).
260. Moustafa & Ginsburg (n 71) 4–10; Bernd Hayo & Stefan Voigt, ‘Explaining De Facto Judicial Independence’ (2007) 27 International Review of Law and Economics 269, 271.
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