China’s judicial system is becoming even more secretive

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The new year will be here soon! Typically, it’s a great time for a fresh start. But not always. And today I want to talk about something that’s unfortunately moving in the wrong direction: transparency in China’s judicial system. 

Last week, a leaked document started circulating online from China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, saying that by the end of 2023, courts of all levels should finish uploading their judgments to a new “National Court Judgment Document Database.” This database is to come online in January and will only be accessible to internal staff. The document’s authenticity has since been confirmed by Chinese media.

Building an internal digitized system isn’t inherently bad. But this development caused alarm because academics and other experts believe it is likely to replace a similar resource that was free and open to the public: China Judgements Online. 

First built in 2013, CJO is one of the largest widely accessible databases that can help someone understand governance in China—a unique window into an increasingly opaque system. By allowing the Chinese public to search through millions of detailed court judgments, it was able to hold the powerful accountable, at least to some degree. If it goes away, that will have a big impact both on Chinese people and those observing from the outside.

Back when it was built, China was still in an era when it celebrated more transparency and oversight over itself. There was even a follow-up regulation in 2016 that instructed judges to avoid finding excuses not to upload their cases.

Sure, Beijing’s top goal may not have been transparency for transparency’s sake; the “main motivation for putting judicial decisions online was likely a desire for greater centralized control over a sprawling system, and an effort to strengthen the courts through enhanced professionalization among judges,” wrote Luo Jiajun and Thomas Kellogg, two legal academics who have been tracking CJO. (Previously, different local courts in China had their own tracking systems.)

Nonetheless, the result was effectively the same. CJO became an important resource for a variety of people: lawyers, scholars, law students, and human rights activists, among others. Today, more than 143 million verdicts have been uploaded to CJO, and the website has been visited more than 100 billion times. 

Outside of CJO, it’s incredibly difficult to get the Chinese government to disclose information, but the CJO verdicts, intentionally or not, tell us a lot about the judicial system and what’s happening in the country generally. “If CJO is shut down, it will be difficult to have public scrutiny over individual cases,” Luo tells me.

One particularly powerful example was in early 2022, when an influencer on Douyin documented how a Chinese woman with a mental disability had been abducted and forced to marry, and subsequently gave birth to eight children. The news, as well as initial efforts by the local government to cover it up, quickly angered people across the entire country.

Human rights advocates hoped to show this was not just a one-off incident, but a systemic issue ignored by the local government. In fact, Fengxian, the county where the woman lived, has long had an infamous reputation for allowing women to be abducted and sold to men looking to procreate. 

By searching CJO, advocates found at least two previous cases in which abducted women filed for divorce in Fengxian and were denied; they also found that people who were prosecuted in the county for human trafficking received minimal prison time. 

CJO also showed similar cases from outside Fengxian, revealing a pattern across China. One study that analyzed 1,480 trafficking cases published on CJO found that one-third of the cases involved women with mental disabilities, and that women were often sold for less than $10,000. All this information was obtained from the publicly available materials.

At the time this all came to light, many people believed human trafficking like this was a thing of the past in China. Then the records from CJO collectively contributed to one of the largest online social movements in the country in recent years, with people repeatedly bringing up the Fengxian woman’s name for months and pushing the government for an explanation.

CJO has served many other purposes over the years. Activists used it to uncover the prosecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the criminalization of online protests. It has even become a useful source of information on Chinese corporations, with people reviewing verdicts to evaluate whether a company is trustworthy.

But all this started to take a turn around 2021. 

A data visualization by He Haibo, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, shows that the annual number of disclosed verdicts on CJO reached its peak in 2020, with 23.3 million cases. In 2022, the total number declined 62%, to 8.9 million. He also noted that in 2022, only 854 administrative cases (where the government is the defendant) were uploaded, which was just a tiny slice of the 670,000 administrative lawsuits that went to trial that year. 

Around the same time, CJO also started to lose case files en masse. In just one three-month period in 2021, CJO administrators removed over 11 million cases, citing the need for a system migration. According to one research project led by Benjamin Liebman, a law professor at Columbia Law School, 9% of criminal case verdicts were removed from the database in a 12-month period in 2021 and 2022. Certain criminal offenses have been totally erased on the platform, including “illegally producing or selling equipment used for espionage” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—the latter being a classic cover for prosecuting Chinese protesters. 

What’s happened to CJO in the past three years means it is no longer an example of genuine government transparency in China, at least not the way it used to be. Yet it still offers immense value, with millions of cases remaining online for people to study. And it is better than what looks to be the likely alternative. 

Since last week’s news, several Chinese legal academics have publicly asked for the courts to keep CJO online and continue releasing verdicts to the public. But it’s hard to see that happening. When it’s gone, it will be even harder for people in and outside China to understand what’s going on there.

Have you used China Judgements Online for your work? Let me know your experience with it by writing to zeyi@technologyreview.com. And a quick programming note: With the holiday season in full swing, China Report will take a two-week break. I’m really thankful to all of you for reading in 2023. See you in the new year!

Catch up with China

1. Public universities in Florida are scrambling to figure out how to implement a new state law that bans institutions from hiring Chinese students to work in labs. Students from a handful of other flagged countries are also affected. (Science

  • Not until last year did the federal government end its controversial China Initiative, which was found to target academics with Chinese heritage. (MIT Technology Review)

2. OpenAI has suspended accounts owned by ByteDance, which secretly used GPT-generated data to train its own competing model in China. (The Verge)

  • Meanwhile, Chinese users of Google’s new AI model Gemini found that if you ask the bot who it is in Chinese, Gemini will say it’s Baidu’s Ernie Bot. It could be the result of Gemini hallucinating, or a signal that it may have used Ernie Bot’s outputs for its training in Chinese. (Here’s one example on X.)
  • If you want to know more about Ernie Bot, I wrote about it over the fall. And earlier this month, my colleagues Will Douglas Heaven and Melissa Heikkilä wrote about the recently launched Gemini. 

3. A national security trial for Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy media tycoon, began in Hong Kong on Monday. It will be a test for Hong Kong’s judicial independence. (BBC)

4. ByteDance has canceled its next-generation virtual-reality headset as the company pulls back from its metaverse ambitions. (The Information $)

5. Chinese e-commerce platform Temu filed another lawsuit against Shein, accusing the latter of “mafia-style intimidation” aimed at forcing suppliers to cut ties with Temu. (CNBC)

  • This is the latest development in the fast-fashion wars, which I wrote about in July. 

6. Chinese spies recruited a far-right Belgian politician for more than three years in order to create division in the US-European relationship. (Financial Times $)

7. The Japanese auto company Nissan is expanding its research ties with a leading Chinese university to catch up in electric vehicles. (Associated Press)

8. As Taiwan’s presidential election nears, it’s fighting against a flood of disinformation from China. (CNN)

Lost in translation

Do you remember the super-short-lived Quibi? Well, Quibi-style dramas are making a comeback in China, and the industry is making more money than ever. According to the Chinese tech publication Huxiu, series with dozens of two-minute episodes have become extremely popular on Chinese social media this year. 

They are inexpensive to make: it only takes a week or two to finish shooting, and everything from scripts to costumes can be done cheaply. But many entertainment industry insiders have reportedly been surprised that they draw in millions of viewers. The first eight to 12 episodes of a show can usually be watched for free, but once the viewers are hooked, they need to pay to unlock the rest. Even prominent movie studios are now starting to produce these series.

One more thing

Sometimes AI can be used to generate dangerous misinformation; other times, it can create this bizarre music video of world leaders (and Lady Gaga, for some reason) dancing and telling you to stop working.

Read More

Zeyi Yang