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Abstract: This seminar draws on a joint paper by Benjamin Liebman, Rachel Stern, Xiaohan Wu, and Margaret Roberts. There has been a flood of scholarship on the importance of information to governance in recent years, in democratic and authoritarian countries alike. Despite this burgeoning conversation about the centrality of information management to governments, scholars are only just beginning to address the role of legal information in sustaining authoritarian rule. This lack of attention to legal information stems in part from two common beliefs: that liberal legal systems are inherently transparent and that authoritarian legal systems closely guard information. In their article, the authors present a case study showing how legal information can be managed: through the deletion of previously published cases from China’s online public database of court decisions. Using their own dataset of all 42 million cases made public in China between January 1, 2014 and September 2, 2018, we examine the recent deletion of criminal cases from the China Judgments Online website. The data suggest that the decision to remove cases is often reactive and ad hoc. But, taken together, the decision(s) to remove hundreds of thousands of unconnected cases shape a narrative about the Chinese courts, Chinese society, and the Chinese state. Media accounts on the recent case removals in China frame case deletions largely as efforts to shield the Chinese legal system from international scrutiny. In contrast, the authors find that the deletion of cases likely results from a range of overlapping concerns. These include the international and domestic images of Chinese courts, institutional relationships within the Chinese Party-state, worries about revealing negative social phenomena, and concerns about copycat crimes. These findings also provide insight into the interrelated mechanisms of censorship and transparency in an era in which data governance is increasingly central. The authors highlight how courts seek to curate a narrative that aims to protect the courts from criticism and boosts their standing with the public and within the Party-state.
This seminar will be chaired by Professor Eva Pils (King's College London). Dr Matthieu Burnay (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Grace Mou (School of Oriental and African Studies) and Perry Keller (King's College London) will act as discussants.
Speaker biography: Benjamin L. Liebman is the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, where he also directs the Hong Yen Chang Center for Chinese Legal Studies. His research has covered diverse topics in Chinese law over the years, ranging from leniency in criminal law to medical dispute resolution and securities markets. His recent work has revolved around the study of Chinese court judgments and the roles of artificial intelligence and big data in the Chinese legal system. Professor Liebman also serves as the director of the Parker School of Foreign and Comparative Law.