How a new reporting mechanism helps China's prosecutorial system lessen influence of personal relationships
"Recording every inquiry" has become a good reason for officials to decline favors.
Party self-governance and the work of judicial, procuratorial and public security organs made headlines in China frequently at the start of 2023.
Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, on Monday stressed ceaseless efforts in promoting full and rigorous Party self-governance and ensuring the implementation of decisions and plans made at the 20th CPC National Congress while he was addressing the second plenary session of the 20th CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, according to Xinhua.
Xi, also Chinese president and chairman of the Central Military Commission, made another important instruction several days earlier on the work of judicial, procuratorial and public security organs when he sent greetings to police officers on behalf of Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee for the Chinese People's Police Day (Jan. 10).
In the instruction, Xi stressed the importance of remaining committed to advancing reform and exploring new ground, and carrying forward the fighting spirit in a bid to modernize the work of judicial, procuratorial and public security organs.
In addition, China Central Television recently aired a new anti-corruption documentary. The first episode revealed details of how ex-justice minister Fu Zhenghua received bribery amounting to 117 million yuan (about 17 million U.S. dollars). The four-episode TV series shows the Party's determination and perseverance in fighting corruption in the new journey after the 20th CPC National Congress, according to Global Times.
To help you better understand China's anti-corruption work, GRR brings you an article titled "Regulation of 'recoding every inquiry' has shielded procuratorial officials from personal favors" “有问必录”成挡箭牌，检察系统这样防止说情打招呼 from Southern Weekly, a Chinese weekly newspaper based in Guangzhou. The piece was first published on the newspaper's WeChat blog in December last year. It was about how a new reporting system helps China's procuratorial organs to reduce the influence of personal connections.
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"... Please do not ask about or interfere with procuratorial cases, and please do not ask for favors, or we'll take down and report what you said truthfully.”
This is the customized ringtone that China's Sichuan Provincial People's Procuratorate set for procuratorial personnel.
Li Shubiao 李蜀彪 is the deputy director of the procuratorial inspection department of the Sichuan Provincial People's Procuratorate. One day in early 2022, his phone rang. The caller was someone he knew when he served in the army. They haven't been in touch for years. As usual, Li let the ringtone go on for a while before he picked up the phone.
When Li finally picked up the phone, the old friend on the other side said with embarrassment, "I was to ask you about some information on a case. But I listened to your ringtone. Now I'm not sure whether I should ask you or not." In the end, Li's old friend didn't ask about the case and hung up the phone after small talk.
In Li's view, the regulation of "recording every inquiry" has shielded procuratorial officials from personal favors.
On August 23, 2019, the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) released Measures for Establishing the Recording and Reporting Systems for Major Matters such as Inquiring about or Interfering with Procuratorial Cases《关于建立过问或干预、插手检察办案等重大事项记录报告制度的实施办法》(short for the Measures). The Measures require procuratorial personnel to report the inquiries if anyone asks about ongoing cases, selection and appointment of cadres, engineering projects, and others, with inquiries within cadres' responsibilities excluded. In procuratorial authorities, the system is called "recording every inquiry."
Prior to that, to prevent interference with the judicial process, authorities like the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, the General Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice had issued three documents, known as the "Three Rules" 三个规定 in 2015.
As of November 2022, judicial officials reported 397,000 files in total, according to statistics from the SPP. Three percent of the files were classified as interfering with judicial cases, while the remaining were deemed as reporting related information and normal inquiries.
Under the requirement of "recording every inquiry," many "public inquiries" actually conveyed appeals of those involved in cases and helped people learn about the progress of cases. Moreover, some inquiries were about reporting problems that occurred in procuratorial cases and urging the procuratorial organs to handle cases impartially and in line with the law, according to Guo Xingwang 郭兴旺, head of the inspection bureau of the SPP, in an interview with Southern Weekly. "We welcome inquiries like these," he said.
"The reason to put emphasis on 'record every inquiry' is to facilitate future investigations, and reassure procuratorial personnel's worries," Guo said.
But he also added that there exist situations of underreporting. For example, officials only report inconsequential inquiries, and omit those with true violations. Thus, the procuratorial organs are now taking measures to ensure truthful reporting.
"An institution is not established overnight," said Guo, adding that the promotion of "recording every inquiry" is to create a deterrent so that procuratorial personnel will stick to the bottom line. The final purpose is to let the entire society know that judicial procedures are impartial, and that people don't need to rely on nepotism to win lawsuits.
01 Cadres get arrested for breaking the law. People they have turned to for favors are under investigation immediately
In June 2022, after China's anti-corruption authorities started investigations on Zhang Bencai 张本才, former chief procurator of the Shanghai People's Procuratorate, and Zhao Zhigang 赵志刚, former deputy chief procurator of the Jiangsu Provincial People's Procuratorate, some procuratorial personnel filed reports in the procuratorial system that Zhang and Zhao had previously asked them for favors.
The reports mean that back when Zhang and Zhao asked those people for favors, they didn't report the matter in time. It also showed that the implementation of "recording every inquiry" has indeed brought pressure on personnel in the procuratorial organ. Because "once an official is under investigation, people the official had turned to for favors would be tracked." Under such pressure, procuratorial personnel can gradually form the habit of "recording every request, no matter who asks."
The pressure comes from the retrospective investigation of related procuratorial personnel after corrupt officials are arrested.
In June 2021, Meng Yongshan 蒙永山, former chief procurator of the Qinghai Provincial People's Procuratorate, was under investigation. The Guangxi procuratorial organ, where Meng once worked, started investigating judicial cases in which Meng had interfered. Authorities found out that 38 officials had connections with Meng, and 25 of them were punished.
In 2022, the SPP supervised retrospective investigations over six bureau-director level officials who had seriously violated Party discipline and laws, including Jiao Huiqiang 焦慧强, former deputy chief procurator of the Beijing People's Procuratorate, Liang Debiao 梁德彪, former deputy chief procurator of the Guangdong Provincial People's Procuratorate, and Li Yang 李杨, former chief procurator of the Yibin People's Procuratorate in Sichuan Province.
Li Shubiao participated in the investigation of Li Yang's case. The team found that in four judicial cases, Li Yang had pulled some strings. Similar to the situation with Zhang Bencai and Zhao Zhigang, some procuratorial personnel recorded interactions with Li Yang afterward.
In the end, the investigation team affirmed that officials who reported interactions with Li Yang afterward didn't take Li's opinions into consideration in the cases they handled. There were two other procuratorial personnel who didn't record their contact with Li Yang even after he was under investigation. The investigation team found out that both were involved in a bribery case in which Li Yang had interfered.
In the second half of 2017, a division head-level official at a municipal people's procuratorate introduced someone closely related to a judicial case to Li Yang. Li then served as chief procurator of the procuratorate.
Later, Li called the deputy chief procurator responsible for the case in the subordinate county-level procuratorate. Li asked about the progress of the case, telling the deputy chief to handle the case according to the law, and report to the municipal procuratorate if there were any difficulties.
The deputy chief procurator admitted that it was unusual for the chief procurator of the municipal-level procuratorate to pay close attention to one certain case. Though Li did not give any specific instructions about how to handle the case. But the deputy chief procurator sensed an overtone in words, suggesting that he should stop investigating the case if he ran into any difficulties.
Later, the deputy chief procurator did have difficulties finding witnesses and physical evidence. So he played along and dropped the case.
In the end, authorities admonished the deputy chief procurator. The division head-level official was found in violation of other Party discipline, so he was given a serious warning and removed from the procuratorial organ.
02 "Inquiries" is a neutral term
Every month, personnel at procuratorial organs need to log in to the national reporting system to record inquiries they have received.
There are two options on the interface —— "no updates" and "updates."
If one clicks "updates," he or she needs to fill in a form with 13 items, including the name of the inquirer, the institute he works for and his title, his relationship with the official, when and how the inquiry is made, the nature of the inquiry, and how the inquiry is handled.
If no one made inquiries that month, then the official must click "no updates." "This is called 'zero-report,' and the form also needs to be filled out," explained Wang Bingjiang 王炳江, deputy chief of the inspection bureau of the SPP.
In fact, the recording rules were established after several years of fumbling.
In 2015, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, the General Office of the State Council, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice successively issued three documents regarding judicial procedures (the Three Rules). They were the Regulations on Recording and Reporting Cadres Who Interfere in Judicial Activities and Cases and seek Accountability《领导干部干预司法活动、插手具体案件处理的记录、通报和责任追究规定》, Regulations on Recording Personnel in Judicial Organs making inquiries on Cases and Seeking Accountability《司法机关内部人员过问案件的记录和责任追究规定》, and Regulations for Further Managing Contact between Judicial Personnel and the Litigants, Attorneys, Special Stakeholders and Intermediaries《关于进一步规范司法人员与当事人、律师、特殊关系人、中介组织接触交往行为的若干规定》.
"The Three Rules" focus on three standpoints, including cadres, judicial personnel, and related parties in cases, requiring judicial personnel to record the illegitimate inquiries, influence, and interference. And they must report to the discipline inspection and supervision departments of the authorities they work in.
But the implementation of the Three Rules was not smooth. In an inspection of the procuratorial system in 2019, the SPP found out that some local procuratorial authorities didn't report any inquiries, but there was interference in many cases.
Why did reporting fall short of expectations? In Wang Bingjiang's view, reporting inquiries that violate "the Three Rules" was basically real-name reporting. However, due to gaps in the reporting system, like mechanisms ensuring information confidentiality, officials still had concerns.
Moreover, some cadres talk elusively when they ask for favors, which makes it hard for subordinates to judge whether they're making normal inquiries within their duties or meddling in cases.
For example, Wang Bingjiang said, when a superior shows extra attention to a case, and requires his subordinate to report the progress, he probably "wants you to read between the lines." The difficulty in judging whether certain behavior violates "the Three Rules" or not turned people away from reporting.
To address problems mentioned above, the SPP rolled out "the Measures" in August 2019. "The Measures" require officials to record and report all the major events, including inquiries about cases. Officials must file reports if they don't know whether there were violations or not. The decision would be left to authorities.
"'Inquiries' could be legitimate, and they could also be improper or illegal. But in this document, it's a neutral term without negative intonations," said Wang, adding that it's up to inspection departments to judge whether the inquiries have violated "the Three Rules."
Zhang Jiangwei 张建伟, professor at the School of Law of Tsinghua University, is currently serving a temporary position as deputy director-general of the procuratorate office for common crimes at the SPP. In his opinion, the system of "recording every inquiry" will help procuratorial authorities put "the Three Rules" into practice as soon as possible.
Zhang believes that the mechanism of taking down every inquiry gives procuratorial authorities access to the situation in time, so that they can give warnings and take measures in front of interference and possible corruption.
Not all inquiries are illegitimate. But "procuratorial personnel must record all the inquiries. If you don't, you're violating the rules," added Wang.
Li Shubiao noticed that some records are unnecessary in the current reporting system. He found the department for accusation and petition of a procuratorate in Sichuan Province recorded quite a few inquiries from the higher authorities, but the higher authorities were fulfilling duties of supervision. And there were officials recording that relatives came for legal consultation. They only asked about how to deal with certain types of cases, and there were no mentions of any specific ones. But the officials also filed reports.
In Li's view, the implementation of "the Three Rules" keeps making progress, and the system has formed an awareness in procuratorial personnel. Next, procuratorial authorities should work on ensuring they understand which inquiries need to be reported and which don't.
03 When procuratorial personnel are reported, their behaviors will be examined
In analyzing records in the first half of 2022, the SPP found about 10 percent of the inquiries were made by personnel at procuratorial authorities.
According to Wang, once the system identifies the inquirer works in procuratorial authorities, the record will be automatically forwarded to the procuratorate where the inquirer works. But if the inquirer is a high-ranking official at the procuratorate, the system will forward the record to the higher procuratorial organ to eradicate the stress on the lower organ.
In 2021, a deputy-bureau-director level cadre in the SPP was reported by local procuratorial personnel. Someone had asked the cadre a favor. He didn't file a report, and he asked the local procuratorate about the case. When the SPP received the report from local procuratorial personnel, they punished the cadre.
In February 2022, a department director from a municipal procuratorate in Sichuan Province went to the municipal finance bureau for official business. An official at the finance bureau asked about his relative's drunk driving case. The case was transferred to a county-level procuratorate for prosecution.
The department director immediately called the procurator in charge and inquired about the case. The procurator turned down her request and recorded her inquiry in the system. The report was directly forwarded to the Sichuan Provincial People's Procuratorate.
Upon receiving the record, the Sichuan Provincial People's Procuratorate started an investigation, and gave the department director an admonishment in June 2022.
While reviewing recorded inquiries from procuratorial personnel in Sichuan, Li Shubiao found retired people accounted for a large share. In 2021, a retired division head-level cadre from the provincial procuratorate was reported due to interceding for others in ongoing cases. Later, the provincial procuratorate made a conversation with her about her inappropriate behavior. But not long after, the system received records of her interfering with cases again.
In 2022, the inspection department of the Sichuan Provincial People's Procuratorate collected nine records of the retired cadre in the system. After confirming with the recorders, the report, as clues for suspected violation of Party discipline, were forwarded to the discipline inspection and supervision group of the Sichuan Provincial Discipline Inspection Commission at the provincial procuratorate.
In the preliminary investigation, the discipline inspection and supervision group found that she was suspected of taking bribes. The group built a case against her in the court for suspected crime of acceptance of bribes and bribery crime by the influence.
Liu Shengli 刘胜利, deputy chief of the inspection department of the Zhejiang Provincial People's Procuratorate, also had a similar feeling that retired people accounted for a large share in the recorded inquiries. Among 257 records of procuratorial personnel inquiries reported in Zhejiang in the first half of 2022, six inquirers were later confirmed to have violated "the Three Rules", and half of them were retirees.
When officials file reports about inquiries in the procuratorates they work in, most scenarios are litigants or their closed ones come to acquaintances who work in the institute in charge of the cases. And they want their acquaintances to reach the specific procurator.
When visiting a grassroots-level procuratorate, Wang Bingjiang asked the director of a department whether employees would inquire or intercede with each other. The director said they dared not ask each other about the progress of cases after the system of "recording every inquiry" was introduced.
"There is competition among colleagues. If you inquire about a case, your colleague may use it against you, which might have a negative influence over your future promotion. So officials simply don't discuss cases they are handling," said the director.
Li said that, in the past, when relatives, friends or superiors inquired about a case, procuratorial personnel were often caught in a dilemma. According to regulations, they shouldn't do them the favor, but they also need to have a good relationship with others. Those with a relatively low moral standard might violate the regulations. But now the system of "recording every inquiry" has become a good reason to turn down favors.
04 If leaders take the rules seriously, things will work out
Every time Zhang Jun 张军, procurator-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, inspects a local procuratorial authority, he would ask the officials how many inquiries they have reported that year. Sometimes, local officials responded, one to two. "
In that case, Zhang Jun would further ask, "Why didn't you report the rest?"
"Zhang must believe the official didn't tell the truth, and there are more inquiries," said Guo, adding that some officials in local procuratorates, especially high-rank officials filed "zero-report" for a long time. This is at odds with China's reality.
Liu Shengli recalled that the implementation of "recording every inquiry" didn't go well at first. In August 2019, the SPP rolled out "the Measures." From August to December, only 150 inquiries were recorded in the procuratorial system in Zhejiang Province.
At a conference on improving Party conduct in procuratorial organs in Zhejiang held in the first half of 2020, Jia Yu 贾宇, chief procurator of the provincial procuratorate, named procuratorates that still kept "zero-report" one by one. Liu was surprised because he originally thought the chief procurator would just mention the problem in a vague way, instead of naming them directly.
The move produced immediate results. After the meeting, Liu Shengli got a call from the chief procurator of a procuratorate named at the meeting, telling him that "we have inquiries in the system now."
In the eyes of Liu Shengli, leaders of a procuratorial organ play a very crucial role in promoting the implementation of the system. Throughout 2020, procuratorial organs in Zhejiang recorded 4,377 inquiries, with monthly average records increasing twelve times from 2019.
How to prevent interceding with procuratorial personnel has long been a tough nut to crack. But the problem will not be difficult to solve if leaders take it seriously.
Within the procuratorial system, there's a "major procurator" (online) chat group. Members are leaders from SPP and chief procurators from provincial procuratorates. Since 2020, the SPP has been making public the number of records reported by each provincial procuratorate every month. For provinces that lag behind, the SPP would issue letters to the local secretary of the Party, and chief procurator in the provincial procuratorate.
Is the number of records a scientific indicator to assess the work of procuratorates? Wang explained that they send letters not only because officials don't record many inquiries. The realities, such as local procuratorial personnel's previous violations of Party discipline and laws and local judicial environment, would also be taken into consideration.
In February 2021, the SPP sent a supervision letter to the secretary of the Party and chief procurator of a municipal people's procuratorate. Later, records in the municipality's procuratorial system rose significantly, and the number of inquiries recorded in the first quarter of 2021 exceeds the total number of 2020.
"Recording and reporting is the precondition and basis for implementing 'the Three Rules.' If there is no report, how could we prevent interference in judicial procedures?" In Wang's view, if two provinces handled a similar number of cases, and their judicial environments are similar, but the number of records differs greatly, the province with fewer inquiries must have failed to implement "recording every inquiry."
Recently, the SPP has been focusing on supervising leaders in procuratorates.
In October 2022, the SPP reported several provincial procuratorates in the procuratorial system because their leaders submitted "zero reporting" in September. Later, the number of inquiries in these provincial procuratorates rose significantly. No more "zero report," some even reported three inquiries happened in the past. (Enditem)