China’s government is pushing digitalization with power, it wants to digitally penetrate every corner of life. Even legal proceedings are now taking place online – and not just because of the pandemic.
Deng Xin is a judge at the Changning District Court in Shanghai – but his courtroom is always empty: He is an online judge, and in his proceedings, the plaintiff and defendant join in via the Internet via video chat. They can sit hundreds of kilometres apart, as they do today: the plaintiff is in Hebei Province in northern China, the defendant in Fujian Province in the south, and Deng Xin’s court is in between.
“Holding the process online is useful in this case. In addition, we avoid contact between people in the pandemic and thus serve to protect against epidemics,” says the judge. Judges, plaintiffs and defendants can be seen live on two large monitors in the hall. The defendant is an online retailer who is said to have sold counterfeit tea – for the equivalent of 40 euros.
More disputes after online purchases
Deng Xin is one of the hundreds of judges at Shanghai’s new digital courts. Last year they held more than 40,000 proceedings online in the east coast metropolis. Every word that those involved say is logged by speech recognition software: artificial intelligence as a helper. In addition, the judge on the computer can use a digital process database with millions of proceedings across China. “With this system, we can query legal requirements and legal updates in real-time, and even look for cases that are similar or the same as mine,” says Deng Xin. Above all, he can do his work faster this way.
His current case is symptomatic of China: With the rapid economic growth of the past decades, millions of new companies have emerged, some of them micro-entrepreneurs who conduct their business over the Internet. The number of legal disputes has also increased massively: in 2005 there were just under eight million cases, and in 2017 there were more than 22 million cases before China’s courts. With the digitization of the courts, the government also wants to react to this increase, says the China expert Mareike Ohlberg from the German Marshall Fund. Settling legal disputes also means maintaining social stability.
Xi has been pushing digitization since 2017
But the brave new world does not change the fundamental deficit of China’s judiciary, Ohlberg criticizes: “The legal system is subordinate to the Communist Party. That is why one cannot speak of an independent judiciary, and that is why one cannot speak of a constitutional state in China”, she says. “But that doesn’t mean that the party will intervene in every case. But it can in every case.”It, therefore, remains questionable whether digitization will also increase the confidence of the Chinese population in their justice system. The go-ahead for the digitization campaign was a call from the highest authorities: as early as 2017, President Xi Jinping had it spread through the state news agency Xinhua that “the use of modern technology should continuously perfect the legal system of China with socialist characteristics”. The President of the Chinese Constitutional Court, Zhou Qiang, had previously set the route for digital courts: “They should take advantage of the Internet, cloud computing, big data and artificial intelligence to create modern courts with better judgment.”
Login via facial recognition
There is a room full of computers at the Shanghai Finance Court. Instead of files, lawyer Wang Shuang has a USB stick with her. She wants to open a case in court. To do this, she steps in front of the computer screen and a small camera scans her face, then she is logged in and can work on the computer. The lawyer sees only advantages: “It used to take me a day or two to print documents. Now everything is paperless and I can process all documents in one to two hours.” Uploading to the court now only takes ten minutes.It has been going on for a year now. At first, my judge Xu Wei, many responded hesitantly, but the corona pandemic brought a boost: “Most clients now use this self-service system for their cases. The pandemic has made them more aware of the advantages of an online legal dispute. “The corona crisis promotes what the government has been preparing for years: China’s communist leadership wants to take high-tech to the top worldwide. The new digital justice system is another building block in fulfilling the grand plan.