Verdicts from China’s Courts Used to Be Accessible Online. Now They’re Disappearing.

Judicial transparency in China has taken a significant step backward in recent months. Beginning at least a year ago, China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has considerably scaled back the number of cases available on its China Judgments Online (CJO) web portal, an Internet platform that is the leading database for judicial decisions from courts across the country. According to one recent media report, court officials removed at least 11 million cases from the site over a three-month period in early 2021, as part of a “migration.”  Some of those cases may have been reposted subsequently, but officials from both the SPC and local courts have taken down additional cases since then. Although it is unclear how many case records have been pulled from public view, the significant curtailment of CJO puts the SPC’s reform goals in doubt, and also calls into question the future path of judicial reform in China.

China Judgments Online was launched in 2013, as part of a broader reform push by then newly-installed Supreme People’s Court Chief Justice Zhou Qiang. In November 2013, the SPC issued regulations requiring all courts to upload their decisions to the CJO database within one week of rendering a verdict. Additional regulations issued in 2016 further tightened the online publication requirements in ways that made it more difficult for judges to evade transparency rules. The 2016 regulations also included five exceptions to the general disclosure rule, including cases involving minors and those related to national security. Still, most experts viewed the transparency push as a qualified success: According to the SPC’s own statistics, as of August 2020 courts had posted more than 100 million cases on the CJO web portal, which had received more than 48 billion visits.

As it announced its transparency reforms, the SPC highlighted the need for better communication with the public and suggested that open access to judicial decisions would enhance both public accountability and public trust. But its 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. Senior SPC officials no doubt hoped that lower courts would be more likely to follow mandates from Beijing if they knew that their verdicts could be perused by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Greater transparency might also encourage local judges to issue stronger, more well-reasoned verdicts, which in turn could serve as a defense against pressure from local governments to deliver their preferred outcomes, in defiance of evidence or of the law itself.

In recent years, CJO has become a go-to resource for lawyers and judges across the country seeking to understand how the courts handle certain types of cases. For both Chinese and foreign scholars, the CJO was a treasure trove of information: The database spawned some of the first-ever in-depth quantitative research on China’s legal system, and provided an invaluable—if imperfect—window into the day-to-day operation of the courts.

Why has the SPC started to undo one of its most successful judicial reforms? One SPC judge told us that the courts became concerned that some verdicts could be used as blueprints for committing similar crimes. Many judicial decisions do include some information on how crimes were committed, although they tend to eschew any in-depth recounting that would be of significant use to would-be copycats.

A closer look at some of the cases that have been removed, however, suggests a different set of concerns. It seems clear that the SPC views certain kinds of cases as embarrassing to the Party: Some of the purged cases highlight official corruption or illustrate the Party’s use of the criminal justice system to crack down on its critics. Other cases present an unflattering view of Chinese society, and have likely been removed for that reason. In other words, the SPC wants its transparency mechanisms to paint a picture of a fair and benevolent CCP, and a healthy and wholesome Chinese society. Many verdicts that cut against that idyll have been removed.

The SPC has yet to publicly acknowledge its moves to scale back the database, and observers of the purge have yet to identify exactly when it started. But our regular use of the database over the past year reveals a declining number of cases turned up in response to certain searches. Targeted searches for specific crimes or terms in certain localities highlight the level of purging that has taken place in certain geographic areas.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, criminal and administrative cases have faced the heaviest censorship. These cases often highlight behaviors that the Party wants to obscure from view, and also shed light on the Party’s use of the criminal justice system to punish critics of the regime. Take criminal cases related to “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” for example. The picking quarrels provision of China’s criminal code is vague enough to be used against a range of actions that local officials deem objectionable, including everything from street altercations to online criticism of senior CCP leaders. A search for picking quarrels cases we conducted in May 2020 yielded tens of thousands of cases. Today, a similar search yields none.

The conviction of Luo Daiqing for “picking quarrels” is one case that has been removed. Luo, then a student at the University of Minnesota, was detained in his home city of Wuhan in July 2019, over Twitter posts that made unflattering comparisons between senior Chinese leaders and various cartoon characters. Luo was found guilty of picking quarrels and sentenced to six months by a local court in October. He was released in January 2020. Per the SPC’s 2013 regulations, the verdict in Luo’s case was posted on CJO soon after it was issued. Just weeks later, Western media outlets reported on the court verdict, in some cases linking directly to the text of the decision on CJO. Today the verdict no longer appears.

Other targeted searches we conducted—as well as those by other researchers—over the past few months reveal a similar pattern of large-scale purging of cases, and also highlight exactly which terms and which crimes the court system has targeted for removal. First, judgments containing key terms that China’s leadership deems “sensitive,” such as “Twitter,” “freedom of speech,” “rumor,” “feminism,” and “national leaders,” have been almost completely eliminated from CJO. Second, many verdicts involving certain kinds of crimes have been removed, including not just “picking quarrels,” but also political crimes such as subversion and morally fraught crimes such as blackmail. Third, many controversial cases have been removed. This seems especially true for cases that have been the subject of public scrutiny in ways that reflect badly on either the Party itself or on Chinese society as a whole. One district court in Anhui province went even further: It simply removed all of its criminal cases from the database.

A June 2021 judicial corruption case from Shandong province, initially posted to CJO but removed less than two weeks later, is one of many cases that cast an unflattering light on the Party-state. On June 8, a vice president and two fellow judges in the intermediate court in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, were convicted of bribery after taking millions of renminbi from over 60 lawyers from different law firms over several years. The case highlighted systemic judicial corruption that included a number of key players, including judges, lawyers, large corporations, and state-owned enterprises. Lawyers caught up in the scandal included top members of the provincial-level lawyers’ association and well-known legal academics, which suggested that bribery had permeated both the court system and the legal profession up to the very highest levels in the province. After the scandal attracted national media attention, the verdicts in the case were removed from the CJO database, and further media reporting on the case abruptly ceased, most likely on orders from the propaganda authorities.

In addition to the culling of cases, the SPC has taken additional steps to limit public access to court verdicts. Beginning in August 2021, for example, CJO has required users to register their phone number to obtain access to the database, thus ensuring that all searches can be traced to a specific user. It is possible that researchers who enter “sensitive” search terms could be screened out. At the same time, CJO now only allows researchers to access the first 600 cases that turn up in any search inquiry, a constraint that makes many forms of empirical research on Chinese case law extremely difficult.

The ongoing purge of cases from CJO also points to deep-seated flaws in the initial judicial transparency push. Conceived by the SPC as a campaign-style top-down push, the transparency initiative largely failed to win much buy-in from rank-and-file judges. Five judges we interviewed in 2019 and 2020 saw the forced publication scheme as a project to catch and punish mistakes, rather than as a genuine effort to foster real transparency and public accountability. In their view, the initiative could only hurt them, and offered little in the way of positive incentives.

For all its flaws, the CJO database was a significant step forward for judicial transparency in China. For eight years, CJO fed a growing conversation among lawyers, judges, scholars, and the public on trends in judicial decision-making, and on the strengths and weaknesses of key court verdicts.

That conversation simply can’t maintain the same level of vibrancy if the case purge continues. An instrumentalist commitment to transparency and accountability, embodied both by the CJO and other government reforms, has been replaced by an even stronger emphasis on secrecy, social stability, full political control, and Party leadership. The window CJO provided into the Chinese legal system is now closing, most likely for years to come.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article implied that 11 million cases removed from the CJO database in 2021 had been removed permanently. The authors have not yet been able to ascertain whether the cases were subsequently resposted, and if so, how many and which ones.