Understanding Judicial Outcomes in China

Principal Investigator: Yue Hou, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

Lead School: School of Arts and Sciences

Penn Partners: School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Economics; Center for the Study of Contemporary China

Chinese Partners: Fudan University, Department of Economics

Other Partners: Princeton University, Department of Politics

Project Abstract

China’s legal system is one of the largest in the world, and the judicial system handles over 14 million cases a year. Scholarship on the Chinese judicial system mainly focuses on major cases and harsh punishments. The lack of systematic understanding of judicial outcomes in China reflects the lack of data. Since 2014, however, over 28 million court cases have been published online as a result of a new national policy of open information. This initiative is an important part of China’s new judicial reform, with Chinese President Xi’s reiterated emphasis on “rule of law” and the aim to stop local influences.

The research questions this project asks include: How far-reaching is China’s legal transparency reform? How does the reform influence judicial outcomes? Do judges’ characteristics impact sentencing decisions? Do co-ethnics receive lighter sentences? Are female judges more lenient than their male counterparts?

The researchers will also propose a test of ethnic and gender bias by studying patterns of sentence reversals. The findings will contribute to a growing body of social science literature on the relationship between descriptive representation and judicial outcomes. The study will also contribute to the understanding of the Chinese judicial system as well as the development of China’s legal reform. Hou et al. hope this study not only enriches scholarship in law and political science, but also informs the on-going policy debate in China on how to move the legal reform forward.