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Why China's Judges Are Calling It Quits

Supreme People's Court in Beijing
Supreme People's Court in Beijing
Shen Nianzu

BEIJING — There is a career crisis in China’s judiciary, and it’s especially acute here in the capital.

First the numbers. According to statistics obtained by Li Yuanfang, a National People’s Congress member, of the 2,053 judges recruited in Beijing between 2008 and 2012, 348 have since resigned. That’s 16.9% of new recruits leaving their jobs, with particular losses in the lower courts.

Li Zhi*, who worked for more than five years as a lower court judge in a Beijing suburb, quit his post to become a lawyer last year. What he experienced may help explain the brain drain inside the judicial system.

Li says he became demoralized by the work overload, the difficulty in obtaining promotions, wages on par with ordinary civil servants, and a loss of pride and status that the profession once held.

“I’m not particularly materialistic,” he says. “Had I felt at least intellectually satisfied, I wouldn’t have left my job.”

Distance between idealism and reality

Li graduated from the China University of Political Science and Law in 2007 and fulfilled his dream of presiding over a court. He started off as a judge’s assistant before becoming an assistant judge himself. His performance was honored with numerous medals.

But since being promoted to an assistant judgeship, Li’s workload has soared. He is required to hear nearly 300 civil cases per year, more than two times the national average. But what makes him feel even more powerless is the fact that he was not able to solve issues independently on cases over which he presided.

Wang Jianxun, associate professor at China University of Political Science and Law, says verdicts often have the signature of a judge who didn’t in fact participate in the judgment. “It’s a seemingly decent job, but it offers no professional dignity,” Wang explains. “This needs to be changed.”

The lack of financial security also weighs on a judge’s mind. Between 2007 and 2013, Li’s monthly salary rose from 2000 RMB ($326) to 5,000 ($815). But housing prices also quadrupled in the same period.

There was also an increase in the number of judges being assaulted by angry petitioners from outside the capital, which demoralized the whole profession. “I entered the court with a sense of an ideal and a calling,” Li says. “But the work in fact brought me a lot of pain and frustration. At a spiritual level I’m simply not happy.”

In response, Beijing’s courts expanded recruitment three times between 2008 to 2010. New recruits are mostly fresh postgraduates from top universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University and China University of Political Science and Law.

“Alas, the working situation has not been effectively improved with the increasing enrollment of new judges,” says Wang. “Too much pressure remains on young judges. Experienced judicial officers most often retreat to the second line of administrative and logistical work where they are not entrusted with the hearing of cases. At the same time, it becomes even more competitive to get promoted as a young recruit.”

The loss of judges is expected to accelerate further over the next few years, at a rate of 200 annually.

Zhao Hai, a National People’s Congress member as well a judge of Beijing West District Court, says that it is now very rare for native Beijing postgraduates to want to work in the court because of its low salary and high pressure. So most recruits are migrants from outside the capital who see it as a stepping stone for gaining the right to have a Beijing household registration.

Lei Jun is another assistant judge who is just waiting to finish his five-year service agreement with the court before he jumps into the private sector. “Judges are regarded as ordinary civil servants, whereas the affairs they deal with, the pressure and responsibility are not comparable with those of ordinary officials,” Lei laments. “I chose to work in the primary court to accumulate a certain experience first so that I can go out and work in the field related to law.”

Beyond Beijing

Even experienced judges are quitting. Zhao Hai mentions the example of a newly promoted presiding judge who went off to work in a private firm that offered him an annual salary of half a million RMB ($81,500).

The phenomenon is not limited to Beijing. Since 2008, courts in Jiangsu and Henan Province have also seen the departure of an increasing number of their judges, in particular those under the age of 40.

All of this has caused widespread public concern. Li Yuanfang raised the issue in last spring’s annual meetings of the National People’s Congress, and recommended raising judicial social status and establishing an independent salary and ranking system for judges.

Wang Jianxun believes that improving the treatment of judges would undoubtedly a stopgap policy. But the permanent cure is to reform China’s entire judicial system, to grant it truly independent status and its judges the full credibility needed to do their jobs.

*Li Zhi is a pseudonym.

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Photo of women walking in Ecuador

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