Some Thoughts on Law in China

 Law and administrative systems are fascinating as a reflection of culture, tradition and popular expectations of justice. These expectations exert pressure on a state that naturally wants to be seem as legitimate.  My reflections are those of a retired U.S. diplomat who worked in China for ten years.

For a deep legal perspective on the law (if one can put it that way), see the article by George Washington University Law School professor Donald Clarke “The Chinese Legal System“.

During my five years (2007 – 2012) working at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, I was fascinated by how the Chinese legal system worked and didn’t work.  Improvements in people’s lives too with rising living standards including the countryside where the agricultural tax was abolished and peasants got some small measure of health insurance for the first time.  As people became better educated and better traveled, particularly the migrant worker who brought their experiences back home, expectations for justice rose.  I imagine that the increased repression we are seeing reflects the pressure and threat the party feels from these rising expectations as China becomes ever more middle class (though it has a long way to go as a developed country with a large undeveloped country within it — part of the trade friction story too).

Bits and Piece of the Law and its Representation in China: Photos

 I annotated many photos I took of notices related to Chinese law that may be interesting and useful to some of you. They are posted on my Flickr account collection on Chinese law at   Including such items as 

Some students came to the law out of idealism but were disappointed as they became more familiar with the telephone justice of the various level of Party “political and legal affairs committee”.  One law school grad who had dreamed of becoming a judge left the law first for NGO work and then became a businessman. 

So many petitioners to higher levels (something in the 90s some officials would boast about as a system for redress in the system, yet it was really an indictment of the dysfunctionalities of the legal system).

Law Professor, Later Reverend Wang Yi in Chengdu

Now imprisoned Reverend Wang Yi   王怡   of Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church was a law professor before he left his university to become a clergyman although as  he told me, his university refused to let him resign his post as a law professor. Rev Wang Yi gave me a copy of his book  与神亲嘴 [tentative title translation would be “Embracing the Lord”] book  which discusses God’s law, church canon law and its role in the development of western law,  and how China needs to become a rule of law, democratic country.  Published privately in China, he pulled no punches in denunciation of Communist Party misdeeds. Discussed in 王怡:与神亲嘴:今日中国的基督化和民主化 [“Wang Yi’s “Embracing the Lord” : On the Christianization and Democratization of Today’s China“] on the Independent Chinese PEN website   The book is available on line in PDF  at!forum/njstpaul 

I imagine that every country needs some kind of legal system to substitute for mob justice and to prop up the legitimacy of the state. These legal systems are often biased to accommodate the needs of the state (raison d’etat) , some more, others less.  In China the bedrock is the people’s democratic dictatorship.  Chinese officials argue that this is democratic and who needs two parties to have a democracy (three Chinese officials used this line recently visiting a large western US city I have been told) .  Of course dictatorship is the noun and democracy is the adjective there. Properly so, since in China the democracy is for those who agree with the principles of the dictatorship. 

Why Law and how does democracy fit into the people’s democratic dictatorship? Legitimacy and Wanting to be an Advanced Country

Still, systems of rules and laws and reasonable expectations of how things work are essential for a modern complex policy and economy.  On a long train ride to Xi’an, a fellow passenger explained it to me this way:  Democracy is the way advanced countries organize themselves in the 21st century.  So China needs to be a democracy.  So the Party set up the forms of a democracy superficially run according to democratic principles but does reserve to itself the right to game the system to produce the desired result.  For example, he continued, “the Party could decide that it wanted you to be the president of this train. We would have an election, but the qualifications to be a candidate would be so narrowly drawn that you would be the only choice!”

I saw this for myself in Chengdu when I spoke with an independent candidate for the local people’s congress who was repeatedly told to drop her candidacy until a beating by local official that sent her to the hospital forced her to withdraw.

How it Appears on the Outside and on the Inside

 We focus on outrageous abuses of power and repression of political dissidents we see in China, but I wonder that the nitty-gritty legal processes that affect people’s daily lives function better than we expect, at least where the interest of local Party organizations and their relatives and hangers-on are not involved.  Or are at least a tolerable alternative to the wartime anarchy and Maoist chaos that prevailed during much of China’s 20th century. And better compared to what preceded it during Mao’s time.  The Hong Kong protests are much more protests in favor of the rule of law than in favor of democracy because Hong Kong people became used to the rule of law as a British colony, something they now are gradually losing.  

Hard to know how it appears on the inside inside the PRC mainland since people aren’t allowed to express themselves in a tolerant environment and are often denied the presentation of well-argued alternatives to current practice. Repression does seem to be a response to pressure for change in Party General Secretary Xi’s China. Sort of the old contest between the irresistible force and the immovable object.

The Party did change its approach with the shift towards opening and reform after its near-death experience in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death — to the extent that some Chinese historians argued that the PRC was refounded then. Not a view favored by the Party. Nonetheless, the people’s democratic dictatorship under the absolute leadership of the Chinese Communist Party — bedrock since the PRC’s founding in 1949.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated,with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
This entry was posted in History 历史, Law 法律, Politics 政治 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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