Below is a guest post introducing Zhang Jun written by Grace (Yu) Mou of the Department of Law of the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London. Knowing her expertise in this area, I had asked Grace if she would be willing to put together a blog post, and I thank her for taking the time to do so.
Zhang Jun: The New President of China’s Supreme People’s Court
Zhou Qiang, the immediate past president of the Supreme People’s Court, may be remembered for his warning to the Chinese courts against the western idea of constitutional democracy and judicial independence back in 2017. However controversial this may have been, Zhou has now officially stepped down from the post of the president of China’s highest court. On March 11, 2023, the new President, Zhang Jun, was appointed during this year’s National People’s Congress.
Who is Zhang Jun?
Zhang Jun was born in Boxing County, Shandong province in 1956. He has a solid legal and political background. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in May 1974. In the following year, he worked in the Changchun municipal propaganda department under the Communist Youth League of China. When the entrance to universities was reopened after the Cultural Revolution in 1978, Zhang Jun was in the earliest cohort studying law at the prestigious Jilin University and earned his first law degree in 1982. Three years later he obtained his Master’s Degree in criminal law from Renmin University of China, a distinguished legal qualification at the time. Upon his graduation, he began working in the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). He started as a clerk in the criminal division and then proceeded to taking on more important roles, including the Director of the Criminal Division, the Deputy Director of the Research Department, and then the Vice President of the SPC. He was transferred to the Ministry of Justice and served as the Vice Minister of Justice in 2003. Two years later, he returned to his former office as a Vice President of the SPC. In 2012, he was named the Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He briefly served as the Minister of Justice in 2017. From 2018 until his current appointment, he served as the President of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP).
Being the President of SPP entails serious responsibility, especially as the procuratorate was suffering from low morale at the time, after being divested of one of its core functions, anti-corruption investigations. In February 2018, one month before Zhang Jun became the President, the SPP’s role in anti-corruption enforcement was officially rescinded, with all these responsibilities transferred to the newly established National Supervisory Commission, alongside the departure of 44,151 prosecutors in charge of anti-corruption investigations. For many who work in the procuratorate, this new reality was a setback to their organisational authority and a hard knock to their sense of collective confidence. How to boost and restore the morale of the remaining prosecutors was an urgent task for the new President of SPP.
The Reformer of the People’s Procuratorate
Zhang Jun’s solution to confront the challenge was to launch an institutional reform to restructure the procuratorate and to strengthen its existing powers. As far as Zhang was concerned, too much emphasis in the past had been placed on anti-corruption investigations and public prosecution, which resulted in other important supervisory functions being largely neglected. The aim of the reform was to put the prosecutorial work on the right track. The institutional reform, to a certain extent, evoked the obsolete concept of general supervision of the 1950s, according to which the functions of the procuratorate are not limited to overseeing criminal justice matters, but encompass a more broad oversight of observance of law by the courts, the government, and private and public organisations. In keeping with this general supervision function, Zhang Jun has regrouped the power of the procuratorate into four classifications: (1) supervising police investigations and public prosecution; (2) supervising civil adjudications; (3) supervising administrative adjudications; and (4) initiating public interest actions against public and private entities, including the government. Noticeably, to streamline and reinforce the supervision of police investigations and public prosecution, a major reform known as the integration of arrest approval and prosecution (busu yiti 捕诉合一) was introduced. Hence, instead of having separate departments dealing with certain facets of criminal procedure, prosecutors were reorganized into teams in charge of all aspects of a criminal proceeding. The role of the prosecutor in charge of criminal cases has also been extended. Rather than reviewing police cases after the police investigation is finalised, prosecutors are encouraged to proactively intervene in police investigations, giving detailed guidance and instructions to the investigating officers as the investigation proceeds.
This essay cannot enumerate all the reforms or their details initiated and implemented during Zhang Jun’s tenure. But amongst all the reforms, arguably one of the most laudable changes brought out by him was the reduction in the rates of pre-trial custody in the detention centre (daibulü 逮捕率). Prior to the reform, the vast majority of suspects were remanded in custody pending trial. For example, in 2018 of the criminal cases that were requested by the police to be remanded, 77.9% of them were approved by the procuratorate. This figure declined to 56.6% in 2022 after several rounds of policy re-adjustments, one of which was the scrutiny of the necessity of pre-trial custody (jiya biyaoxing shencha 羁押必要性审查). In the meantime, the overall non-prosecution rates (buqisulü 不起诉率) increased from 7.7% in 2018 to 26.3% in 2022, meaning that more than a quarter of criminal cases were filtered out of the prosecution review process. These official statistics paint a positive light on the more relaxed crime control principle at the pre-trial stage. The new policy implemented by the SPP known as ‘less custodies and cautious prosecutions’ (shaobu shensu shenya 少捕慎诉慎押) is often credited with safeguarding the procedural rights of suspects in the criminal process.
Legal professionals working in the field of criminal justice have noticed that the gravity of the criminal process has moved further away from trials in recent years, with the procuratorate becoming the most powerful actors thank to its role in the Leniency for Pleading Guilty and Accepting Punishment (renzui renfa congkuan zhidu认罪认罚从宽, hereafter Plea Leniency), which allows a lesser sentence to be considered in exchange for the accused’s admission of guilt. Currently, around 90% of criminal cases are disposed of by Plea Leniency. However, when the new criminal procedural law on Plea Leniency was initially implemented in January 2019, only 20.9% of cases adopted Plea Leniency, according to official data. Eleven months later, the application rate increased to 83.1%. The surge was largely attributed to Zhang Jun’s strong leadership that vigorously promoted and enforced Plea Leniency. To that end, a tough performance regime was set out for local procuratorates to achieve the goal. Prosecutors are empowered to negotiate and propose sentences in Plea Leniency cases, which undoubtedly strengthened the power of the procuratorate, albeit at the expense of the courts’ sentencing power. Judges’ sentencing function has been reduced to the official ascertainment of the guilty plea and formal approval of the sentence recommended by the prosecutor. With the overwhelming majority of cases being processed by Plea Leniency, prosecutors have taken on the roles of a policymaker, case manager, adjudicator and sentencer, more powerful than ever before.
Some observations of the new SPC President
Without question, Zhang Jun’s procuratorate reforms have reshaped the internal structure of the procuratorate and significantly changed the landscape of criminal justice. He is widely regarded as a strong, capable leader and a stern, tough boss who laid down exacting standards on the people working within the procuratorate. So how will he fare in his new role as the President of the SPC, where he had already worked for over two decades? It is certainly hard to predict, especially because the President of SPP is accorded more latitude in directing the procuratorate through vertical leadership whereas the power of the SPC President is relatively constrained. Despite this, some observations can be drawn from his performance in the past few years.
First, as a reformer, he had a clear vision of how the institution can be improved to enhance its performance and strengthen its power. During his term at the SPP, the procuratorate underwent the most intensive reforms in its history, ranging from personnel reshuffles, re-organisation of internal departments and offices, redefining and re-interpreting prosecutorial functions and work models, to resetting performance targets and strengthening prosecutorial responsibilities. These reforms are interconnected and reinforce one another, under the overarching objectives of strengthening the power of the procuratorate and optimising the efficacies of its inner working mechanism and external operations. The smooth transformation of the procuratorate indicates his in-depth understanding of the institution, its history, and obstacles.
Secondly, as a political player, he was committed to maximising the interest of the institution and was skilful in securing it. Working in the top echelon of the SPC, SPP, the Ministry of Justice, and Communist Party Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for almost two decades, Zhang Jun accumulated sufficient political capital to be a weighty player in the political arena. The procuratorate becoming the most dominant legal player in the criminal process today was a fruit of successful negotiations between the two judicial institutions. The procuratorate reforms were apparently approved and supported by Xi Jinping. Zhang knew how to tread a delicate line of fulfilling political demands and observing the dignity of law in law enforcement. On the one hand, the procuratorate was deployed by the Party-state as a ‘dagger’ (daobazi) to maintain Party-state security. It was one of the key players in full cooperation in Xi Jinping’s three-year war on ‘black societies and evil forces’, cracking down on thousands of serious and organised crimes during the campaign. On the other hand, he also enthusiastically promoted the procuratorate’s service to cultivate a healthy and encouraging economic environment for private enterprises. Since 2020, the SPP has been implementing a non-prosecution pilot scheme based on corporate compliance (heguibuqisu 合规不起诉). This pilot scheme offers the companies suspected of minor crimes an opportunity to discontinue the prosecution case provided that they correct their illegal activities and build a compliance system under the guiding hands of the procurator. In his speech at the Peking University in 2019, Zhang Jun sent a clear message that the procuratorate works toward fostering a supportive society that is conducive to economic growth, to which end, a lenient approach to economic crimes should be adopted.
Finally, years’ legal training and working experience in the SPC certainly have an impact on Zhang Jun’s policy-making. As a policy-maker and a legal professional, he is familiar with the legal debates surrounding the particular issues at hand and is willing to consult with leading academics in the field. Some of his policies (such as the implementation of Plea Leniency) were reported to be evidence-based and informed by criminal data and projected crime trends. He was forthcoming in communicating to the general public in plain language what the policies aimed to achieve and why. These qualities transmit a level of legal professionalism and transparency. The reforms and policies directed by him are imbued with his understanding of law, procedural rights, and how the law and legal practices can be shaped to pragmatically protect the interests of people involved in the current socio-political context.
Working in the SPC for over two decades and being a former vice president of the SPC for a decade, Zhang Jun, as the President, has clearly learnt the lessons from his predecessors and is well acquainted with all the challenges facing the Chinese courts. But how the court system in China will be steered under this pair of old, and, hopefully, safe, hands, is yet to be seen.
 SPP, ’44,151 Prosecutors have completed their reassignments to the National Supervisory Commission’ (SPP, 09/03/2018)(https://www.spp.gov.cn/spp/zdgz/201803/t20180309_369902.shtml).
 PRC Central Government, ‘Press Conference on the SPP Internal Reform and Fully Implementing Laws and Legal Supervisory Function’ (China Net, 03/01/2019) http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2019-01/03/content_5354487.htm
 See SPP annual work reports, 2018-2023, https://www.spp.gov.cn/spp/gzbg/index.shtml.
 SPP, ‘The Report of the Application of the Leniency for Pleading Guilty and Accepting Punishment’ (17 October 2020, SPP), https://www.spp.gov.cn/spp/zdgz/202010/t20201017_482200.shtml.
 See Zhang Jun’s remark: “As far as economic crimes related to the corporations, if there is a hesitation as to whether or not the suspect should be arrested, prosecuted or given a custodial sentence, the principle to follow is we must not” (对涉企业经营类犯罪，依法能不捕的不捕、能不诉的不诉、能不判实刑的提出适用缓刑建议). Legal Daily, ‘Five Years’ Procuratorate Reforms: A Journey Forward’ (Legal Daily 8/02/2023).
 SPP, “The SPP Report on the implementation of Plea leniency by the people’s procuratorates’. Jiancha reibao (The procuratorate daily 17/10/ 2020) https://www.spp.gov.cn/spp/zdgz/202010/t20201017_482200.shtml.