- Data-Driven Approaches to Studying Chinese Judicial Practice: Opportunities, Challenges, and Issues*
Data is the new gold.—Neelie Kroes1
For a long period of time, the Chinese courts were enveloped in tales, myths, and stereotypes. Public access to court decisions was limited and patchy, and varied greatly both across the country and at different levels of court. Hence, useful observations concerning Chinese judicial practice have often times drawn upon anecdotes, or at best limited evidence, rather than large-scale surveys of court rulings. It is therefore no surprise that the Chinese judiciary and its processes have long been seen by litigants, the general public, and even learned observers as something of a “black box.”2
Against this backdrop, one might be surprised by the alacrity with which the Chinese court system has embraced the age of big data. Whereas the Chinese courts were previously often concerned with [End Page 1] matching their foreign counterparts in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, their swift adoption of new digitalization technology in such areas as case management, data storage, and artificial intelligence-assisted adjudication promises to transform the courts into one of the most digitalized dispute settlement institutions.3 Particularly notable in this regard is the bold initiative taken by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in 2013 to make available online a full-text open-access database, China Judgments Online (CJO),4 which houses close to 50 million decisions of the Chinese courts (as of July 2018). In sheer number terms, this SPC disclosure initiative justifies China’s claim to have overtaken many of the “advanced” legal systems to which it has long looked to for inspiration.5
The CJO project constitutes one of the most significant judicial reform measures undertaken by the current party-state leadership. The online archiving of court rulings on such a grand scale is not just a technical matter, but implies far-reaching changes to the structure of communication among legal professionals, the centralization of power over the judicial system, and the professionalization of judges. The online database also has the potential to affect the position of individual judges with regard to accountability and performance evaluation, as well as to readjust the relationship among the courts, the media, and the public. Further, compared with other recent judicial reform measures, CJO is poised to become more sustainable, as it is largely an internal measure initiated from within the judiciary, and hence its implementation does not depend on actors outside the court system to be functional.6
To students of the Chinese judiciary, few opportunities are more exciting than that offered by the ongoing mass digitization of Chinese court decisions (the CJO initiative, in particular). This unrivalled access to a vast body of such decisions offers tremendous potential to unearth the previously unknown dynamics of Chinese judicial practice, thereby affording new opportunities to conduct original research contributing to both doctrinal legal and social science scholarship. Paradoxically, the availability of such a massive pool of new data also poses an unprecedented array of challenges for researchers, particularly with regard to research methodology.7
This special issue arises from a symposium jointly organized by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Jilin University, and the University of Cologne and held in Hong Kong in October 2017.8 International and local scholars from such disciplines as law, sociology, political science, [End Page 2] and business studies undertook a collective intellectual endeavor to explore the opportunities and challenges presented by the significantly increased access to Chinese court decisions. What insights on the processes, strategies, and preferences of the Chinese courts can be drawn from the newly accessible data? What do the data tell us about the dynamics between the Chinese courts and the broader ideological, sociopolitical, economic, and cultural contexts in which they operate? What are the methodological limitations and pitfalls of drawing inferences from these data, and what remedial strategies can be adopted to overcome them? What are the most promising areas for interdisciplinary collaboration to harvest the full potential of the ongoing digitalization of Chinese court decisions?
The six papers selected for this special issue represent a modest attempt to tackling...