Modern Chinese Court Buildings, Regime Legitimacy and the Publicby Björn Ahl, Hendrik Tieben

Int J Semiot Law


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Modern Chinese Court Buildings, Regime Legitimacy and the Public

Björn Ahl1 · Hendrik Tieben2 © Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Abstract This study investigates the interrelation of outer appearance and spatial configuration of modern Chinese court buildings with the party-state’s strategy of building regime legitimacy. The spatial element of this relation is explored in four different court buildings in Kunming, Chongqing, Shanghai and Xi’an. It is argued that court buildings contribute to the empowerment of individuals who appear as parties in trials. Courthouses also facilitate the courts’ function of exercising social control and the application of an instrumentalist approach to the principle of public trials. Both the grounding of court buildings in the past and their compliance with international models of a modern independent judiciary are aspects of consolidating regime legitimacy.

Keywords Chinese architecture · Court buildings · Rule of law · Regime legitimacy 1 Introduction

The People’s Republic of China (‘PRC’) has witnessed a building boom of courthouses since the 1990s. Although courts occupy a weak power position in relation to other state organs, courthouses are on an equal footing with government buildings in terms of size and monumentality. The construction of new ‘spaces of & Bjo¨rn Ahl

Hendrik Tieben 1 Institute of East Asian Studies, University of Cologne, Albertus-Magnus-Platz, 50923 Cologne,

Germany 2 School of Architecture, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, New Territories,

Hong Kong SAR, China 123

Int J Semiot Law

DOI 10.1007/s11196-015-9416-y law’ coincided with the party-state’s emphasis on the need to act in accordance with law. In 1999 the goal of establishing a socialist rule-of-law state was included in the

Constitution.1 Though the party has tightened control of the judicial system over the past years and some reform measures have been interpreted as a ‘turn against law’ [29, pp. 935–984],2 rule of law is still a central component of the party-state’s legitimisation strategy. Courts in China do not play the same role as in liberal democratic rule-of-law systems, where they can impose meaningful restraints on the state and the individual members of the ruling elite. However, Chinese courts are not merely pawns of the Party but fulfil important functions that require a certain degree of institutional autonomy. In order to fulfil those functions effectively, courts need to interact with the public. This interaction has a strong spatial element, which will be explored in four different court buildings in Kunming, Chongqing, Shanghai and Xi’an. The following study investigates the interrelation of outer appearance and spatial configuration of modern Chinese court buildings with the party-state’s strategy of building regime legitimacy. It is argued that the relation of court buildings and regime legitimacy becomes manifest in the interaction of spaces of law with the public. The design of courthouses contributes to the legitimacy building function of courts and also reflects the ambiguities that come with the party-state’s rule-of-law strategy. Chinese grand court buildings are spatial expressions of official rule-of-law discourses; they are intended to materialize a strong state and a powerful legal system.

Since jurists are trained to perceive court findings as rational decision patterns that are solely based on law and legal doctrine, legal scholars have rarely addressed the significance of court architecture for the trial and the legitimacy of court decisions. However, judicial space is not neutral, the ritual of adjudication is closely connected to and derives legitimacy from the spatial setting in which the trial takes place. Earlier works such as from Kemmerer and Kähne approach the study of court buildings through a legal or architectural history perspective [20, 21], whereas

Fischer–Taylor’s analysis of the Palais de Justice of Paris links architecture with political theory [7]. Over the past few years, studies from various disciplinary perspectives on courthouses and the law have flourished [5, 36, 38, 39]. Mulcahy explores in Legal Architecture the relation between court buildings and the participants in trials from a socio-legal perspective. Focusing on the internal configuration of courtrooms in England, she finds that the spaces of the public have been gradually contained and increasing amount of space has been dedicated to advocates, journalists and the jury. In contrast to official statements that envision courthouses as increasingly democratic spaces, the study concludes that “progressive use of segregation and surveillance to contain participants have served to undermine any meaningful aspiration to participatory justice or notions of the courtroom as a public space” [30, p. 106]. Dovey and Fitzgerald argue in their study on Transparency and Legitimation in the Courthouse that “authority becomes stabilized and legitimated through both spatial rituals and the architectural framing 1 Art. 5 (1) of the Constitution of the PRC (中华人民共和国宪法) of 4 December 1982 provides that “The PRC governs the country according to law and establishes a socialist rule-of-law state.” 2 A more nuanced view is presented by Trevaskes [40, pp. 315–344].

B. Ahl, H. Tieben 123 of them. Symbols and rituals of legitimation are effective because one cannot argue with them; they are the way things are done around here. In this regard architecture has a particular capacity to serve this legitimation imperative with spatial assemblages that celebrate and reproduce spatial rituals, symbolize the authority of the state and also embody a sense of intimidation or threat of force in the event of non-compliance” [5, p. 125]. With Representing Justice Resnik and Curtis have presented a monumental work on the relationship between art, architecture and judicial adjudication, the visual representations of justice and their relations to procedural fairness and democracy in the work of the courts [35]. In China, literature on court buildings is generally rare, usually of descriptive character and written by architects3; an exception is Li’s legal-historical study on late Qing and