By Xiaobai Sun, Initium Media
On Feb. 26, Caiyun Ma, a judge in Beijing’s court system, shared a personal post on the text messaging service WeChat.
It was titled “Depressed Judge.” It described the living conditions of Chinese judges: overwork, no dignity, no financial security, no opportunity for promotion. Two hours later, she was dead — shot by two disgruntled individuals over her rulings in two divorce cases.
The news spread quickly in China’s judicial system. However, news reports of the incident were censored by the government Publicity Department. The murder took place just four days before the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Apparently, the Publicity Department cared more about public opinion than about the death of a judge.
State media control of the incident reflects typical official practice. In terms of politics, the judicial system is subject to “the complete lead of the communist party.” From an administrative perspective, the court is considered part of an intractable system. Most of the time, judges remain silent or are required to hold back their personal views in public. They quietly serve the needs of China’s judicial machine.
But that changed after Ma was gunned down. Lower court judges defied censorship rules by spreading word of the murder on social media. Independent Chinese press outlets also covered the case. The ultimate purpose was to raise public awareness about the incident and create a better system to protect judges.
“What angered us was not the gun, but the deleting of news report by authorities,” one anonymous judge said in an online commentary titled “our anger comes from forbearance.”
Overwork, no dignity or financial security
According to former Judge Qing Yang (a pseudonym), judges tend to be protective of one another. If one judge is criticized on Chinese social media, others will step forward to defend them, “because judges consider themselves socially vulnerable.”
Yang recalled overseeing a case involving the division of a demolished house property between siblings. One plaintiff was dissatisfied with the court result. He called Qing Yang every night after midnight to humiliate and scold the judge.
Yang responded that “if you think there is a problem, you can file an appeal or a complaint.” But the plaintiff continued harassing Yang over the phone. The judge blocked his phone number. The plaintiff then started using another number to call. Even after turning off his cellphone at night, Yang would find a bunch of harassing text messages the next morning. Eventually, Qing Yang quit his post, saying “this is too upsetting. I have no dignity, no financial security, no chance for promotion, and there are so many temptations outside.”
Yang graduated from a master’s degree program in law in 2009 and began working for a lower court in Beijing. He received 1,800 yuan ($277) a month as an intern. He later received 3,000 yuan ($462) monthly as a full-time employee.
But this couldn’t cover his monthly living costs. His monthly rent was between 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month. Things got worse in 2010 when all his subsidies were cancelled because of a top-down regulation order. His supervisor told everyone to wait patiently for a salary increase. But Yang never got the raise up until the time he left his job.
Yang’s financial predicament is common among judges in Beijing.
“Not much money, so much pain,” said current judge Ting Zhang (a pseudonym), summarizing her life using one word: “busy.”
At China’s lower court, cases are categorized into many subcategories. They include criminal, civil and commercial cases. These subcategories are further divided into more specific classes and sent to different courts. Judge are assigned cases randomly. Zhang receives approximate 300 to 400 cases annually.
She opens two court sessions and writes at least one verdict daily. But the court doesn’t have the resources to assign each judge a clerk to ease the work load. “A clerk can only get one or two thousand every month. It is too hard to hire one in Beijing,” Zhang said.
The public isn’t aware that Chinese judges are being overwhelmed by their case loads. On the contrary, the popular perception of the courts is that they’re hard to access. Filing a lawsuit requires tons of documents that could put anyone off. When a case is tried, plaintiffs also use all means that their disposal — such as follow-up calls, waiting and stopping the judge outside the court gate—in order to expedite the process. In addition to routine work, judges have recently had to create time for “political study.” They need to practice patriotic “red songs” after work and write a “thought summary” over the weekend.
Politics is primary, law secondary
Under China’s current legal system, judges can only improve their living conditions through promotion. Promotion is based on indexes that measure performance. However, “no one takes the indexes for promotion seriously,” Yang said, “how can you say that the judge has done a bad job based on the fact that a case is returned from the intermediate court?”
There are 31 indexes in total that measure a judge’s eligibility for promotion. As in instances where cases were returned from the intermediate court, many other indexes are also regarded as inept measures of judicial performance.
In addition to the indexes, promotion is also based on seniority and personal connections with supervisors. Due to the limited number of higher posts, not every judge will win promotion.
Bureaucratic factors further complicate the picture. There are two promotion systems in China’s courts. One is based on judge seniority. The other promotion path involves going for purely administrative judicial posts. “Before the court reform, many judges handle cases at the prospect of switching to administration in the future. You get closer connection with supervisors and have higher chances for promotion,” Yang said.
Judges leave system
Despite calls for legal reform by scholars and others, many Chinese lower court judges are already disappointed with the system. Cases where judges have quit their jobs have become noticeable in recent years. In China, judges have to sign a five-year contract with the court when they take their jobs. They must work for five years before leaving.
Colleagues of murdered judge Caiyun Ma say she considered quitting several times. “Many judges keep a low profile under pressure. But Caiyun had a strong personality,” said one. Many of her colleagues suspect that her strong character offended her killers. The notion that integrity led to her murder is stirring fears among other judges.
Blackmail and threats
Judicial circles also circulate the following story: A middle-aged female judge working at a lower-court received a phone call from a plaintiff. The plaintiff told the judge that he knew her daughter’s school and the color of the clothing the daughter wore that day. The plaintiff didn’t make any specific request, but let the judge weigh the possible meaning of his statements.
Former judge Zhe Li (a pseudonym) says he long wavered between the realities and ideals of his job. His ideal had been to champion social justice against vice through the sword of law. However, he found that internal and external pressures at court prevented him from exercising independent judgement. Eventually, quitting became an option.
The notion of finding work outside China’s judicial system for better pay and working conditions beckons to many judges. It isn’t hard for a judge with five years of experience to find another job.
Former judge Yang is one of these. He works for a high-tech companynow and is no longer worries about being threatened or harassed. He has more than doubled his salary and works in an office skyscraper. Only occasionally do incidents remind him of the dark world he used to belong to — such as the death of Judge Caiyun Ma.
On Feb. 27, the day after Caiyun Ma’s death, Judge Fan He at the Supreme People’s Court wrote in an online comment: “Tonight, don’t call us judges. Without occupational protection, we are all cheap legal workers!” “We must establish protective mechanism for legal occupations! We must establish protective mechanism for legal occupations! We must establish protective mechanism for legal occupations!” He wrote the sentence three times.
This article was originally published on Mar. 9, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated by Tenei Nakahara for Asia Times