Chinese authorities may be rethinking their willingness to allow the courts to serve as forums for challenges to existing Party and government controls. Over the last year, Chinese authorities have launched the “Three Supremes” campaign, re-emphasizing Party control as a key principle that should guide the work of Chinese courts, instead of merely relying on the written law.
The “Three Supremes” campaign coincides with personnel
changes within the courts that suggest a less friendly environment for legal
activists trying to use the court system to pursue their claims. In March, Wang Shengjun assumed the role as president of the Supreme People’s Court, and has since played a leading role
in promoting the “Three Supremes” campaign.
Unlike his predecessor, Wang’s background is deeply
rooted in the Party’s political-legal apparatus and the public security forces,
rather than in the courts or other legal institutions.
The “Three Supremes” campaign also occurs at the same time as Chinese officials appear to be less comfortable with relying on court adjudication as a means to resolve citizen grievances. In recent years, Chinese authorities have pushed to channel administrative and civil cases involving hotly disputed issues or large numbers of plaintiffs out of the court system and into mediation. Chinese officials have also taken steps to curtail the use of such forums by Chinese lawyers and legal activists, including restricting their involvement in such cases.
In a June interview, President Wang outlined the content of the "Three Supremes" - “the supremacy of Party work, the supremacy of popular interests, and the supremacy of the constitution and law.” He noted that these formed “the guiding principles for the work of the courts in the new era, and underlined the extent to which this campaign was linked to the need to maintain Party control, stating:
[T]he people’s courts must place all of their work on improving the Party’s ability to govern, on strengthening the Party’s ruling position, and on carrying out the Party’s mission to ruling . . . [they must] resolutely oppose enemy attacks on China’s socialist rule of law, firmly oppose the influence of all types of incorrect political concepts, and always place the work of the courts under the absolute leadership of the Party.”
While the strict language of the “Three Supremes” technically includes law and the constitution as sources to guide court work alongside “Party work” and “popular interests,” comments by other officials suggest that it is primarily aimed at curbing excessive reliance by judges on law in deciding cases, particularly if doing so contributes to social unrest or conflict. As one official with the Zhoudan Municipal Intermediate People’s Court noted in May in explaining the content of the “Three Supremes”:
For a relatively long period of time, some units and individuals have been accustomed to simply emphasizing the supremacy of the constitution and the law, frequently leading artificially creating conceptual conflicts or departures from the principles of “serving the overall situation” and “taking the popular satisfaction as the standard” . . . Simply handling cases, mechanically handling cases, handling cases in isolation, and causing petitions (shangfang) or causing [people] to be in confrontation with judges, these phenomena are not few in number. Experience teaches us only emphasizing the constitution and the law is insufficient. Each official carrying out the law must understand that strictly handling cases according to the law will only have significant autonomy and vitality when unified with Party work and the interests of the people.