Prof. Zhang Xuezhong

Any account of the legal system of the People's Republic of China must be prefaced by a warning of the need to distinguish between the formal system and what actually happens. Such a gap is of course present in some degree in all countries, but in many areas it is particularly broad in China . Thus, while it may often be possible to provide a reasonably complete account of Chinese law as it applies to a certain issue, that may not be the same as a reasonably complete account of how a certain issue is in fact treated in China . But this problem is getting less and less significant as the promulgation and enforcement of legislatures at various levels have become more and more transparent, particularly as a result of China’s on-going legal reform in response to it’s entry into WTO.

The Chinese legal system is in form much closer to the legal systems of Continental Europe than to the Common Law, but also contains substantial elements borrowed from the Soviet Union . However, the impacts on Chinese legal system by the former Soviet Union should not be overemphasized, since most of the important legislatures in China have been enacted in the past two or three decades during which the influence of the former Soviet Union were no longer evident. A noteworthy phenomenon is that more and more elements and concepts from common law begin to appear in Chinese legal system, especially in commercial law areas, and one of the possible reasons is because among the members of groups of consulting experts for legislators are found many scholars who have been educated in law schools in common law jurisdictions.

It is now very hard to see in the enactments themselves elements or concepts inherited from traditional Chinese law, probably thanks to some thirty years of communist ruling of China led by Chairman Mao who, while having learnt quite a lot to shape his own political and military strategies and tactics through extensive and intensive research on Chinese history, were far from hospitable to Chinese traditional thoughts and culture. But it seems Chairman Mao did not succeed in helping Chinese people get rid of their thousands years of tradition and the tradition still plays an important role in the process of political, economic, and legal decision making in today’s China. The absence of traditional legal and cultural elements in the legislatures and their existence in the legal interpretation and enforcement are a major cause of the gap between form and reality, and between how participants talk about the system and how they act within it.

Traditional Chinese Law

Unlike the legal systems of Continental Europe, Chinese law does not trace its roots to the private-law system of Rome or to any religious basis. Instead, traditional Chinese law centered on State concerns and dealt with private matters incidentally. While medieval European monarchs held themselves forth as providers of justice and sought legitimacy on those grounds, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) worried that

“[l]awsuits would tend to increase to a frightful amount, if people were not afraid of the tribunals, and if they felt confident of always finding in them ready and perfect justice. . . . I desire, therefore, that those who have recourse to the tribunals should be treated without any pity, and in such a manner that they shall be disgusted with law, and tremble to appear before a magistrate.”

While Imperial China with its advanced bureaucracy produced a great deal of documents of a rule-like character, it had very few officials with the specialized function of interpreting and applying those rules, and their role was limited to the review of cases where a non-state actor was involved as a defendant. No institution existed that could apply law against the State, and original jurisdiction over cases involving individuals was with the local magistrate, an official whose responsibilities covered all aspects of government (and not simply legal matters) within his territorial jurisdiction.

In summary, the legacy of traditional Chinese law inherited by modern China is substantially different in many of its most basic principles from European legal systems. Law has no connection with religion; there is no special, differentiated institution ("court") for handling legal matters; and the legal system functions to serve State interests, not to protect individual rights or to resolve disputes among individuals (although it can sometimes be used to serve that purpose).

Modern China

In 1911, Imperial China came to an end with the overthrow of the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty. After almost four decades of intermittent civil war and invasion, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949 under the rule of the Communist Party of China. The legal history of the PRC begins with the abolition in 1949 of all the laws of the predecessor state, the Republic of China. This left a substantial legal vacuum that ultimately had to be filled by whatever authoritative materials decisionmakers had at hand, including Party newspaper editorials, policy documents, and leaders' speeches. At the same time, there was for many years little need for a formal legal system in many areas of national life, since the economy was largely subject to state planning and conflicts could thus be resolved without reference to legal rights and duties.

Recurring political turmoil prevented any substantial development of the legal system for the first three decades of the PRC, but with the start of the post-Mao era of economic reform in 1979, a number of changes began to occur. Significant amounts of legislation were issued and the institutions of the legal system -- in particular, courts, judges, and lawyers -- received more attention from the State. Indeed, the ideal of "rule according to law" was recently written into the national constitution, although the practical effect of adding these words remains to be seen.

The PRC is in form a unitary state; all power flows from the central government, whose seat is in Beijing . Local governments have only such power as the central government chooses to delegate to them. Naturally, it cannot avoid such delegation, and in many cases is unable to supervise effectively the exercise of local government power, leading to substantial de facto autonomy for local governments in some areas of activity.

As it rejects the notion of vertical separation of powers, the PRC also rejects the notion of horizontal separation of powers between different branches of government (for example, the traditional troika of legislative, executive, and judicial branches). A necessary separation of functions is acknowledged, but constitutionally speaking the National People's Congress (in form, a legislature) sits at the apex of China 's political power structure. In reality, that position is occupied by the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, but both form and reality share the rejection of multiple power centers.

Because the form of centralism, whether vertical or horizontal, does not match the reality of the need for delegation, the Chinese legal system does not deal well with the problem of defining the limits of the rule-making authority of subordinate bodies. To be sure, there are laws prescribing legislative hierarchies the most prominent of which is Legislature Law of the People’s Republic of China promulgated on March 15, 2000, but there are few institutional ways of making these rules meaningful.

Law of the People Republic of China on Supervision by Standing Committees of People’s Congresses at Various Levels which will take effect on January 1, 2007 is widely hoped to provide an important institution to promote legal consistency and uniformity in China. According to the Supervision law, as commonly called in China, Standing Committees at various levels are authorized to revoke decisions and orders by other government agencies within their territorial jurisdictions if they are in violation of laws and regulations of higher rank in authority. It should also be noted that the Supervision Law gives special emphasis on the Standing Committee’s power to revoke decisions and orders which may unjustly deprive natural or legal persons, or other private organizations of their legitimate rights.

As noted above, at the apex of China's formal constitutional structure of political power is the National People's Congress (NPC), which has the authority to issue laws binding over all of China, and which also appoints the Premier (the head of the State Council, which might loosely be described as China 's cabinet or executive branch) and the Presidents of the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuracy (the prosecutorial agency). NPC delegates are not directly elected; they are chosen by the people's congresses below them, at the provincial level. Similarly, provincial people's congress delegates are chosen by people's congresses below them. Only the people's congresses at the lowest level have directly-elected delegates.

The day-to-day work of government is carried out by the State Council under the Premier. The State Council is divided into various functional ministries and commissions. This bifurcation between a people's congress on the one hand and a day-to-day government on the other hand is replicated several layers down into local government. In each case, the government organization is responsible not to government organization the next level up, but rather to the people's congress at the same level. Again, this is the formal structure. In practice, the Communist Party organization at any given level of government has a monopoly on political power. This monopoly, of course, does not mean absolute power to do whatever the Party organization wishes. There are always constraints on capacity, whether economic, political, or social.

There are four levels of courts in China : the Supreme People's Court at the center, the Higher Level People's Courts at the provincial level, and the Intermediate Level and Basic Level People's Courts further down at the local level. Each level of court is essentially responsible to local political power at the same level, a responsibility that is reinforced by local control over court finances. The Supreme People's Procuracy has a similar structure. While efforts are being made to upgrade the quality of the judiciary, China 's courts at present are marked by the low educational level of their judges and their low status in the hierarchy of power. A judgeship is not, as it is in many countries with a continental system, a fully professionalized, civil service position.

All of the above organizations, at various levels, are capable of issuing documents and rules purporting to be binding on various parties to varying degrees. Needless to say, such documents may frequently conflict, but there appears to be no institution with the will and the capacity to resolve such conflicts authoritatively. Even the Supreme People's Court, despite the system's self-image as one in which courts merely apply law and do not make it, regularly issues long documents, unconnected with any particular case, in which it spells out detailed legal rules and which may even be in conflict with laws made by the National People’s Congress and regulations enacted by the State Council.

Although many people from the academic field have been criticizing the Supreme Court’s de facto law making power as unconstitutional, some think there is a point in it given the fact that the Congress is neither representative nor specialized enough to make laws with balanced and specific provisions. In fact, provisions in the National Congress’ legislature are often very general and very few lawsuits can have the chance to be reviewed by the Supreme Court, so in these rule making activities is demonstrated the court’s effort to make sure the law is applied as uniformly as possible across China.

The top-down view of law as an instrument of government, with citizens seen as the objects of legal regulation, remains influential in China today. Courts by and large do not welcome litigation, and often try to discourage it. The concept of the private attorney-general, in which the state seeks to enlist private citizen plaintiffs in pursuit of its goals, is (with the interesting exception of defective consumer products) by and large anathema. Far more than in many other systems, the Chinese legal system is willing to forgo the enforcement of rights when other pressing values seem to be at stake, to the point where it might be more accurate to say that the system recognizes interests more than rights.

Rule of Law in China

Judged by western standard, China still has a very long way to go to become a nation ruled by law, but it is also safe to say that remarkable progress has been made in its endeavor in this respect. With so many important legislatures in place, the discretion of government agencies at all levels is limited to fairly great extent and they all have to learn how to manage so big a country with preexistent rules. Whether the provisions in those legislatures are reasonable or not is subject to debate, but at least any violation of law or abuse of power by government agencies can now be demonstrated in a observable way and even the Communist Party can not afford to turn a blind eye to the fact that the legitimacy of its regime is being undermined. This in turn brings about a certain degree of legal certainty and justice in Chinese society and the protection of private rights may consequently be enhanced.

Sometimes it is just very hard, or even impossible, to stop what was started and in China, people have already begun to criticize laws and regulations for leaving too much discretion to the government or for setting too many constraints on people’s freedom. As is evident in the process of amending the Marriage and Family Law, the Securities Law, the Company Law and the Bankruptcy Law in the past few years, and of drafting the Property Law which has caused so many debates, the National Congress has begun to pay a lot of attention to the opinion of people from all classes in Chinese society. The informal participation of common Chinese people in the legislating process, at least to some degree, renders the diversity of interests to be balanced and the society’s mainstream values to be reflected in the legislatures. In addition, the law makers have developed a habit of frequently consulting legal experts, with intent to make sure that the laws they make are technically reasonable.

The recent amendment to Chinese constitution almost touched one of the fundamental issues of rule of law, that is, the constitutional protection of personal integrity, freedom and private property. The twenty-first amendment and the twenty-second amendment provide protection for private business and property rights respectively. And the twenty-forth amendment, for the first time in China, provides that the state shall respect and protect human rights. This is by far the most significant reflection of natural law elements in Chinese legal system..

Establishing rule of law in a nation like China is no easy task and always takes some time. The legal development in China is not being carried out through dramatic revolution, but through gradual social reform. The policy makers usually set up practical and reasonable goals from time to time, and try to achieve them step by step. Chinese people still have to overcome too many obstacles. Universal confidence in and respect for law are to be cultivated and the bigness of the country and its population will still be a great challenge for the uniform application of law. The professional accomplishment of judges is far from satisfactory and the overburdened judiciary is not yet competent to ensure the law will be interpreted and applied correctly or properly in every case. Only in comparison with the situation of two or three decades ago can people see how tremendous the achievement is that has been made by Chinese people in turning its nation into one ruled by law.



China - General
CIA World Factbook (China)
Internet Guide for China Studies
Universities Service Centre for China Studies
China Academic Periodicals Database
Contemporary China: A Book List (bibliography maintained by Prof. Lynn White, Princeton University)
People's Republic of China E-Government Directory
Chinese Government Ministries on the Web

Chinese Law Databases
O'Melveny & Myers

Discussion and Research
The Chinese Law Net (listserve on modern Chinese law)
Chinese Legal Research at the University of Washington (2000)
Internet Chinese Legal Research Center



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