Digitalising law and the courts on a faster clock fits the infrastructure edge helping to create an ‘Asian century’

'asia century' - two books and opinions -
Justifications for The Rise and Decline of the Asian Century: False Starts on the Path to the Global Millennium, published in 1998, have been eclipsed by developments supporting The Future is Asian, launched this month

In the panic over the infamous Y2K or millennium bug two decades ago, poorly paid Indian computer coders became the outsourcing miracle that staved off chaos as they toiled to correct the software error that had made the world’s computers incapable of shifting into the dates of a new millennium. Because their work resembled dull clerical labour, few in the West — even among the highly-educated and well-travelled — understood the implications of this labour pool’s existence. They could not see that it was only the unimpressive (if mission-critical) end of far deeper technological expertise and potential. It was impossible to convince them that India would ever be capable of much more than providing hives of software coolies — even though Bill Gates, still at Microsoft’s helm at the time, said that it would be extremely difficult to run his company without its Chinese and Indian software engineers.

Twenty years later, Microsoft and Google are being run by chief executives born in India and mostly educated there.

There remain sceptics who refuse to acknowledge that Asia could soon be more than a match for the U.S. and other leading Western nations in virtually all the most significant technologies. It is hard to see how they can explain away — for instance — this passage in ‘China gains the upper hand over Germany,’ a report by Wolfgang Münchau published in The Financial Times on 3 March:

The two countries do have a lot in common. [ … ] But Germany’s economic strategy is not nearly as consistent. The German political preference is to reduce public debt. Yet the country’s biggest problem is falling behind in the technological race. Excessive fiscal consolidation has been the main cause of under-investment in roads, telecoms networks, and other new technologies.

What he says there fits what frequent intercontinental flyers have been remarking on for at least fifteen years — that Asia has been overtaking the West in updating infrastructure, especially airports and roads, even if large segments of the Chinese and Indian populations continue to live in primitive housing and can lack facilities as basic as toilets. Technological progress and modernising infrastructure are apparently part of the same feedback loop, as much a fact of life in those countries as dire poverty.

This paradoxical reality accounts for the experts’ inability to agree on whether or not the world is on the brink of a so-called ‘Asian century’ — in which the continent on which India and China coexist replaces the West as the world’s economic powerhouse, on its way to military and cultural dominance. If the facts truly support a headline in the same newspaper last week — ‘The Asian century is about to begin’  — the future tense will soon no longer serve for discussions of this topic. A London School of Economics conference on it at the start of this month was timed to coincide with the launch of The Future is Asian, a book by an Indian-American public intellectual, Parag Khanna. The counter-arguments in older books, such as The Rise and Decline of the Asian Century: False Starts on the Path to the Global Millennium, published in 1998, have been eclipsed by strong, recent economic trends.

What does any of that have to do with this web site’s focus on translating the digital revolution into the redesign of the legal system and courts? Just this: it cannot be a mere coincidence that here, too, the leaders are the Asian giants, China and India, and not the West — with the notable exception of Britain, in spite the monumental distractions of Brexit. 

A country’s legal system is crucial in the social counterpart of the physical infrastructure that holds it together.

Monitoring and delving into the progress of the litigation revolution across the world was never the purpose of this site. Through a single, fully substantiated case study, COTIN is intended to demonstrate how genuinely open or ‘transparent’ legal proceedings accessible by anyone would almost certainly have made the lamentable markers of this case inconceivable — a judge wholly unqualified and struggling, by her own admission, to adjudicate in a branch of law in which she had no experience whatsoever, in a trial skewed blatantly for the benefit of a colleague on the bench.

Questions about whether and when digital communication and broadcasting would be deployed by courts in California and the rest of America to achieve that transparency have led to discovering that they are laggards in this transformation. Entries on this site about courts at the forefront of change — in faraway countries — are based on woefully incomplete information, but they should encourage American media with the large long-distance travel budgets that this subject deserves to fill in the blanks. They include:

As another year closes, U.S.-invented technology is helping courts worldwide to realise a dream of live-streamed justice — streaking ahead of their change-resistant American counterparts

Is China leading the world in developing cyber-courts conducting trials online?

Who or what is making it harder to find news about performance-vetting and disciplining of California judges in Google — and why might this dismay Justice Breyer of the US Supreme Court?

Is China leading the world in developing cyber-courts conducting trials online?

people's court website Screen Shot may 2018
Screen shot in May 2018 of the home page of the site dedicated to the reform of China’s legal system by Professor Susan Finder, Supreme People’s Court Monitor

google search results p1LOWER HALF for ' courts'
Lower half of the first page of Google search results for ‘ courts’ on 30 July 2018

With or without human intervention — and for no discernible reason other than mentions of a Chinese-American judge with a Chinese-American name — the Google algorithm that indexes this site keeps drawing attention to a Chinese innovation that has largely been ignored by mainstream Western media.

For several days, typing the terms ‘ courts’ into the search engine has yielded for a final result on page one — after nine results related to COTIN or California’s legal system, including one about Governor Jerry Brown and the Supreme Court — a link to a story on the Endgadget site dated 18 August 2017 and titled ‘China’s online court heard its first case today.’

Taken at face value, that news would mean that Britain has fallen behind China in putting its court system online — despite Lord Justice Briggs’s prediction in 2016, featured on another part of this site, that Britain would be first in moving a key element of court proceedings onto the internet, a ‘digitised “triage process”’. But when the China story surfaced last summer, Britain still only had what Endgadget called ‘an online court pilot program,’ while Canada, its closest rival, had launched ‘an online tribunal for small claims disputes.’ A German magazine reported that the Chinese had launched ‘probably the very first virtual court worldwide and will hear disputes arising from internet-related activities.’

But China’s legal system is sufficiently different from all its counterparts in the Western tradition to be incommensurable with them — lacking anything resembling a common yardstick.

Susan Finder, an American legal scholar who has spent more than thirty years of her career in Hong Kong and China, has explained that while ordinary Chinese people are beginning to understand that they have rights under law, ‘government officials at high and low levels don’t always have what the Chinese call “rule of law thinking”’. Speaking at a conference in California in 2016, she said that there is ‘a fuzzy line between law and party policy;’ that this policy changes often; and that government enforcement of law ‘presents practical issues’ for both individuals and companies.

It is a shame that those characteristics mean that there is probably not very much in the Chinese launch of a cyber or virtual court that Western legal systems can use as a guide or model.

If there were, the information would not necessarily be easy to come by. Professor Finder says that most writing on the Chinese legal system is ‘siloed,’ addressing specialists both inside and outside China. This is obvious from her web site that serves both as an English-language gateway to the online Supreme People’s Court and as a frame for ‘a blog discussing China’s highest court,’ of which she is an official ‘monitor’.

It is hardly her fault that this job, like much of her writing on the site, seems as mysterious, baffling and remote as might be expected from its deeply foreign context. About — for instance — the drafting of the first comprehensive overhaul of China’s ‘law of the people’s courts’ since 1979, she says: ‘Among the central Party authorities consulted were: Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Central Organizational Department (in charge of cadres); Central Staffing Commission (in charge of headcount); Central Political Legal Committee.’

Yet in both China and Britain, the power of the internet is being harnessed for sweeping legal reforms with the same laudable, principal aim: transparency. As a 2016 BBC report from China noted about the commencement on of proceedings streamed online from (traditional rather than virtual) courts across the country:

According to Zhou Qiang, the head of China’s Supreme People’s Court, the streaming site will “better safeguard people’s right to know and supervise” but its value could go well beyond that, by helping Chinese citizens get a glimpse of what’s actually going on inside their country, beyond the filter of state-controlled media.