COURT STRUCTURE AND PROCESS
Between the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 and the legal
reforms of 1979, the courts--viewed by the leftists as troublesome
and unreliable--played only a small role in the judicial system.
Most of their functions were handled by other party or government
organs. In 1979, however, the National People's Congress began the
process of restoring the judicial system. The world was able to see
an early example of this reinstituted system in action in the
showcase trial of the Gang of Four and six other members of the
"Lin-Jiang clique" from November 1980 to January 1981
(see China and the Four Modernizations, 1979-82
, ch. 1). The trial, which was
publicized to show that China had restored a legal system that made
all citizens equal before the law, actually appeared to many
foreign observers to be more a political than a legal exercise.
Nevertheless, it was intended to show that China was committed to
restoring a judicial system.
The Ministry of Justice, abolished in 1959, was reestablished
under the 1979 legal reforms to administer the newly restored
judicial system. With the support of local judicial departments and
bureaus, the ministry was charged with supervising personnel
management, training, and funding for the courts and associated
organizations and was given responsibility for overseeing legal
research and exchanges with foreign judicial bodies.
The 1980 Organic Law of the People's Courts (revised in 1983)
and the 1982 State Constitution established four levels of courts
in the general administrative structure. Judges are elected or
appointed by people's congresses at the corresponding levels to
serve a maximum of two five-year terms. Most trials are
administered by a collegial bench made up of one to three judges
and three to five assessors. Assessors, according to the State
Constitution, are elected by local residents or people's congresses
from among citizens over twenty-three years of age with political
rights or are appointed by the court for their expertise. Trials
are conducted in an inquisitorial manner, in which both judges and
assessors play an active part in the questioning of all witnesses.
(This contrasts with the Western adversarial system, in which the
judge is meant to be an impartial referee between two contending
attorneys.) After the judge and assessors rule on a case, they pass
sentence. An aggrieved party can appeal to the next higher court.
The Organic Law of the People's Courts requires that
adjudication committees be established for courts at every level.
The committees usually are made up of the president, vice
presidents, chief judges, and associate chief judges of the court,
who are appointed and removed by the standing committees of the
people's congresses at the corresponding level. The adjudication
committees are charged with reviewing major cases to find errors in
determination of facts or application of law and to determine if a
chief judge should withdraw from a case. If a case is submitted to
the adjudication committee, the court is bound by its decision. The
Supreme People's Court stands at the apex of the judicial structure
fig. 21). Located in Beijing, it has jurisdiction over all
lower and special courts, for which it serves as the ultimate
appellate court. It is directly responsible to the National
People's Congress Standing Committee, which elects the court president
(see The Judiciary
, ch. 10).
China also has special military, railroad transport, water
transport, and forestry courts. These courts hear cases of
counterrevolutionary activity, plundering, bribery, sabotage, or
indifference to duty that result in severe damage to military
facilities, work units, or government property or threaten the
safety of soldiers or workers.
Military courts make up the largest group of special courts and
try all treason and espionage cases. Although they are independent
of civilian courts and directly subordinate to the Ministry of
National Defense, military court decisions are reviewed by the
Supreme People's Court. Special military courts were first
established in 1954 to protect the special interests of all
commanders, political commissars, and soldiers, but they ceased to
function during the Cultural Revolution. Military courts and
procuratorates were reinstituted in October 1978, and open military
trials resumed in December of that year.
Data as of July 1987