China's Courts: Restricted Reform

Benjamin L. Liebman, Columbia Law School


This essay examines the development of China's courts over the past decade. Although court caseloads have increased only modestly, courts have engaged in significant reforms designed to raise the quality of their work. Yet such top-down reforms have been largely technical, and are not designed to alter the power of China's courts. Courts have also encountered new challenges, including rising populist pressures, which may undermine both court authority and popular confidence. The most important changes in China's courts have come from the ground up: some local courts have engaged in significant innovation, and horizontal interaction among judges is facilitating the development of professional identity. Recent developments have largely avoided two central questions facing China's courts: why have courts been permitted to develop even limited new roles, and what additional roles, if any, may they play within the Chinese political system?