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China’s court system appears to be dramatically pivoting away from a decade-long effort at judicial transparency. A leaked document from China’s top court – dated November 2022 - reveals that authorities have ordered all courts to upload their judgments to an internal database, available only to court personnel. Coupled with a dramatic reduction in the numbers of cases made available via the Chinese court system’s public-facing platform China Judgments Online (CJO), this has raised concerns that Beijing may be on the verge of steadily gutting, if not scrapping entirely, its move towards greater court transparency launched over a decade ago.

All of these moves come amid Beijing’s increasing focus on data security and counterespionage, reflected in legal reforms in those two fields, enacted in 2021 and 2023, respectively. Taken together, they point to a steady pivot away from earlier tolerance of (and even active support for) more transparent access to information.

https://www.cfr.org/blog/chinas-steady-retreat-transparency

What useful information can court judgments provide to intelligence agencies? Chinese authorities have ordered all courts upload their judgment to an internal database in what seems like a campaign to increase data security and counterespionage, but to me this is nonsensical, because I can't see how court judgment can provide any useful information to intelligence agencies such as the CIA. This seems apparent when the United States allows most, if not all, court judgments to be accessed publicly.

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  • Intelligence is not only classified information. For example, google the term "open source intelligence."
    – SJuan76
    Feb 23 at 0:23
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    An answer is accepted too fast in my view, without waiting for competing viewpoints. For example, when I first heard of the initiative to get courts in China to write on their judgements and uploading it, as someone with some familiarity with the system, the immediate understanding is that leading officials are trying to improve the quality of the court system in China -- to increase internal consistency. Stuffs like greater human rights would be esoteric and would not come from the officials who spearheaded the initiative. At the same time, another immediate reaction was that the system
    – Argyll
    Feb 23 at 15:50
  • was not going to be sustainable. Because I would not expect courts in China -collectively - to be able to produce judgement documents that stand up to scrutiny. It was obviously also introducing something significant and new to the workflow. So even just for workflow reasons, it was already not going to produce something of high quality. Still the court system is young and personnel can be better trained. And then corruption.. politics... So fast forward to the news that the uploads will be made to internal database. It made sense as a way to continue the initiative but hopefully
    – Argyll
    Feb 23 at 15:52
  • in a sustainable way in practice. Human rights arguments would again be esoteric. I would like to further criticize the decision to accept answer immediately by looking at whether currently presented view points are original or referenced materials from other scholarly analysis -- with there being some reason to prefer external scholarly analysis that would presumably involve more time spent on said analysis by vetted individuals with some proximity to the system in question. That is not the case either. So even more reason to have kept the question open. Obvious reasons in my view.
    – Argyll
    Feb 23 at 15:54

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The immediate issue here is not the intelligence: indeed, any sensitive information is likely protected in the court anyway - indeed, one would not expect a court to discuss classified matters in the open, either in China, or the US, or elsewhere.

The judicial transparency however matters in terms of defending human rights, particularly regarding the prosecution of political opponents. From Wikipedia article Open justice:

Open justice is a legal principle that requires that judicial proceedings be conducted in a transparent manner and with the oversight of the people, so as to safeguard the rights of those subject to the power of the court and to allow for the scrutiny of the public in general.

That the protection of the court data goes hand-in-hand with other measures dealing with data security is likely due to the similar technical and administrative issues involved.

Remark:
A famous example of an innocent person convicted in a closed trial is the Dreyfus Affair. Although outside of France it is largely known for the role that Dreyfus Jewishness possibly played in it, and the rise of the public antisemitism during the years of the legal dispute, the core of the matter was actually the rights of an individual vs. the interests of the state. Indeed, the acquittal became possible only because of a whistle-blower with access to the classified information (Colonel Georges Piquart), who himself was subsequently prosecuted. Moreover, Dreyfus was again convicted in the second trial - not because he was still believed guilty, but because some of the persons involved believed that acquitting him would undermine the stability and security of the state.

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  • The issue is that not all intelligence is classified, indeed it seems that many intelligence agencies generate reports on the basis of publicly available information (open source intelligence). For example, knowing that an steel factory has been sued by many of its customers because the alloys it produces are not up to spec might be used to guess that the alloys that the same factory provides to the military might be defective. Bankruptcy proceedings by lots of farms can be a hint of an impending famine... and so on.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 23 at 0:21
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I assume court judgments are potentially useful since they may refer to the internal workings of corporations, and inside relationships, in a way that isn't as easily available by other means.

Perhaps it is also potentially a way to target malcontents - what better way for foreign intelligence to recruit snouts and get inside information, than to target insiders or former insiders locked in legal battles with the target?

The US almost certainly does conceal or control various court judgements when it perceives an intelligence risk, you just don't hear as much English language propaganda about it happening.

It could also be that Chinese judgments routinely contain certain details that wouldn't be found in Western court judgments, perhaps because their judiciary are less deferential to corporate privacy.

It's impossible to be certain on all points without speculation, but it does seem wrong to suppose no court judgment (or statistical aggregate of many judgments) could ever contain useful intelligence information.

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    The argument for having them online was made here in 2018: chinajusticeobserver.com/a/… I suspect that the concern is less about intelligence information and more about leaving litigants in the dark vis-a-vis judges and the state and powerful repeat players in the system (and hiding corruption and disparities between judgments) with foreign intelligence providing merely a more acceptable, if less plausible, reason for it. Chinese judgements are less detailed than common law court judgments.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 22 at 14:51

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