Mass Digitization of Chinese Court Decisions: How to Use Text as Data in the Field of Chinese Law
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Over the past five years, Chinese courts have placed tens of millions of court judgments online. We analyze the promise and pitfalls of using this remarkable new data source through the construction and examination of a dataset of 1,058,990 documents from Henan province. Courts posted judgments in roughly half of all cases in 2014 and, although the percent of cases posted online has likely risen since then, the single greatest challenge facing researchers remains documenting gaps in the data. We find that missing data varies widely by court, and that intermediate courts disclose significantly more documents than basic level courts. But court level, GDP per capita, population, and mediation rates are insufficient fully to explain variation in disclosure rates. Further work is needed to better understand how resources and incentives might be skewing the data. Despite incomplete information, however, a topic model of 20,321 administrative court judgments demonstrates how mass digitization of court decisions opens a new window into the practice of everyday law in China. Unsupervised machine learning combined with close reading of selected cases reveals surprising trends in administrative disputes as well as important research questions. Taken together, our findings suggest a need for humility and methodological pluralism among scholars seeking to use large-scale data from Chinese courts. The vast amount of incomplete data now available may frustrate attempts to find quick answers to existing questions, but the data excel at opening new pathways for research and at adding nuance to existing assumptions about the role of courts in Chinese society.