For most of the history of China, its legal system has been based on the Confucian philosophy of social control through moral education, as well as the Legalist emphasis on codified law and criminal sanction. Following the Revolution of 1911, the Republic of China adopted a largely Western-style legal code in the civil law tradition (specifically German-influenced). The establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 brought with it a more Soviet-influenced system of socialist law. However, earlier traditions from Chinese history have retained their influence, even to the present.
Law in the People's Republic of China is currently undergoing gradual reform, as many elements inside and outside the country emphasize the need to strengthen the rule of law in China, and international trade and globalization spur transformations in various areas of Chinese domestic law.
A term which preceded fa was xing (刑), which originally probably referred to decapitation. Xing later evolved to be a general term for laws that related to criminal punishment. The early history Shang Shu recorded the earliest forms of the "five penalties" - tattooing, disfigurement, castration, mutilation, and death. Once written law came into existence, the meaning of xing was extended to include not only punishments but also any state prohibitions whose violation would result in punishments. In this newage, xing may be understood in the sense of penal law or criminal law. An example of the classical use of xing is xing bu (刑部: "Department of Punishment") for the legal or justice department in imperial China.
The two major Chinese philosophical schools discussed below, Confucianism and Legalism, seriously affected the idea of law in China. Briefly, under Confucianism, the state should lead the people with virtue and thus create a sense of shame which will prevent bad conduct. Under Legalism, law is to be publicly promulgated standards of conduct backed by state coercion. The tension between these two systems is that Confucianism relies on tradition to make the leader the head of household of all China while Legalism makes standard law that even the emperor should be bound by. The common factor is that both endorse to different degrees a paternalistic conception of the state, which knows better than its citizens and makes laws to protect them. This concept persisted throughout the imperial period, into the republican period, and can still be seen acting today.
Unlike many other major civilizations where written law was held in honor and often attributed to divine origin, law in early China was viewed in purely secular terms and its initial appearance was greeted with hostility by Confucian thinkers as indicative of a serious moral decline, a violation of human morality, and even a disturbance of the total cosmic order. Historically, the people's awareness and acceptance of ethical norms was shaped far more by the pervasive influence of custom and usage of property and by inculcating moral precepts than by any formally enacted system of law. Early emperors however embraced the Legalist ideal as a way of exerting control over their large and growing territory and population. This process was integrated with traditional Chinese beliefs in the cosmic order, holding that correct behavior was behavior consonant with the appropriate responses set by Fa. Xing states the potential costs to the individual of exceeding them and imposes penalties for these actions.
The imperial period was characterized mainly by the concept of law as serving the state, a means of exerting control over the citizenry. In the late Qing dynasty there were efforts to reform the law codes mainly by importing German codes with slight modifications. This effort continued and was amplified in the republican period resulting in the Provisional Constitution of 1912 which included the idea of equality under the law, rights for women, and broader rights for citizens vis-à-vis the government. The onset of the communist period at first rolled back the development of individual rights with the primary concept of law returning to that of a tool of the state. After the Cultural Revolution devastated the ranks of intellectuals and legal professionals, it took until the 1982 for the idea of individual rights to reemerge as a significance influence on Chinese law.
The current constitution, created in 1982, states in Article V that no organization or individual is above the law and in Article III makes the People’s Congresses and state administration responsible to the people, paving the way for later efforts to allow enforcement of individual rights. Passage of the Administrative Litigation Law of 1987 created legal recourse for individuals from arbitrary government action, an avenue previously unavailable. Despite the deep-seated norm against legal proceedings, litigation in the Chinese courts has increased dramatically, especially in recent years. The continuing weakness of courts resulting from their dependence on the local government for financial support and enforcement undermines the effectiveness of these remedies but this has also begun to change with China’s initiatives to increase legal training and the professionalism of the judiciary. One avenue of individual appeal from government action which continues to be important is the custom of xinfang or petitions by citizens to the individuals officials for change. The continuing wide use of xinfang reflects the fact that many officials are still able to avoid legal sanctions and the underlying avoidance of the legal system, as well as the personal ability of officials to personally intervene to change unjust results. Recently xinfang has been institutionalized to some extent with the central government mandating that every level of administration establish a xinfang office to handle petitions and report them up to high levels. This solution by exertion of personal power clearly goes against the idea of rule of law, and worse some scholars have noted that xinfang today functions more as an informational collection system for the government than an effective review mechanism.
The basic premise of Confucianism is the idea that human beings are fundamentally good. With this optimistic view on human potential, Confucius advocates for ruling through li – traditional customs, mores, and norms – which allow people to have a sense of shame and become humane people with good character, rather than through government regulations and penal law. The idea is that people will internalize the acceptable norms and only take proper actions. This will not only lead to a harmonious social order, but it will also provide the additional benefit of improving an individual’s inner character and the overall quality of the society. In contrast, codified laws require external compliance, and people may abide by the laws without fully understanding the reason for compliance. As such, a social order achieved through formal laws does not come with the additional benefit of better citizenry. It is worth noting, however, that even Confucius does not advocate for the elimination of formal laws. Rather, according to Confucius, laws should be used minimally and reserved only for those that insist on pursuing one’s self-interests without taking into account the well being of the society.
As Confucius rejects the general use of formal laws to achieve social order, what lies vital to Confucius’ theory is the willing participation by citizens of the society to search for commonly accepted, cooperative solutions. In addition to willing participation of citizens, there must also be grounds or bases upon which commonly acceptable solutions can be arrived at - the concept known as li. Li is commonly understood as a set of culturally and socially valued norms that provide guidance to proper behaviors that will ultimately lead to a harmonious society. These norms are not fixed or unchangeable over time but rather a reflection of what is accepted at a particular time in a particular context. When conflicts arise, the li have to be applied and interpreted to produce a just result and restore the harmony of the society. However, in the absence of any procedural safeguard afforded by codified laws, interpretation of li is subject to abuse.
Recognizing that people in a society hold diverse interests, Confucius charges the ruler with the responsibility to unify these interests and maintain social order. This is not done by dictatorship but by setting an example. Therefore, a ruler needs not to force his people to behave properly. Instead, the ruler needs only to make himself respectful, and the people will be induced and enlightened by his superior virtues to follow his example – an ideal known as wuwei. Nevertheless, the ruler must know and understand the li to be able to create solutions to conflict and problems the society faces. As the people are to follow the moral standards and example set by the ruler, to a large extent, the quality of the ruler determines the quality of the political order.
In contrast to Confucius’ li-based theory, the Legalism advocates the utilization of codified laws and harsh punishment to achieve social order. This is due to the legalists’ belief that all human beings are born evil and self-interested. Therefore, if left unrestrained, people would engage in selfish behavior which will undoubtedly lead to social unrest. To cure this defect and force people to behave morally, the only way, believed the legalists, is to publicly promulgate clearly written laws and impose harsh punishments.
Realizing that the abilities of rulers are often limited and that reliance on the ruler’s ability and judgment often leads to adverse results, the legalists designed a system in which the law is run by the state, not the ruler. This ensures that the laws will be applied impartially without the interference of personal bias of the ruler or ones who are responsible for applying the laws. It also makes it irrelevant whether the ruler has superior abilities. This non-action promoted by the legalists is their understanding of the concept of wuwei, which is different from the Confucians’ understanding of the same concept. Notwithstanding such an understanding, the ruler, like in Confucianism, has the ultimate authority to decide what the law should be. Therefore, like Confucianism, Legalism is subject to abuse as well. In fact, the Qin emperor implemented strict laws and extremely harsh punishments without taking into account mitigating circumstances even for insignificant crimes. For example, books were burned and people holding different ideals were buried alive. While the Qin emperor successfully instilled fear and respect for law into the minds of his people, the harshness of the law led to his quick demise after only 14 years of reigning over China.
In summary, although both Confucianism and Legalism were developed in a period of turmoil and both were aimed at the re-unification of the country, the two theories went opposite directions with one advocating for and one against the use of formal laws to achieve social order. What the two theories have in common is their concession of the ultimate authority to the ruler, who remained above and beyond the li or law. It is true that neither theory is ideal in achieving a social order. Nevertheless, both theories have had a significant impact on the cultural and legal development in China, and their influence remains visible today.
The Han dynasty formally recognised four sources of law: lü (律: "codified laws"), ling (令: "the emperor's order"), ke ("statutes inherited from previous dynasties") and bi ("precedents"), among which ling has the highest binding power over the other three. Most legal professionals were not lawyers but generalists trained in philosophy and literature. The local, classically trained, Confucian gentry played a crucial role as arbiters and handled all but the most serious local disputes.
Eventually, the incorporation of the essentials of Confucianist li into legal codes occurred with this Confucian conception dominating ancient Chinese law. Ch'ü concludes that the gradual process of Confucianisation of law was the most significant development in the legal system of China prior to 20th century modernisation. The line between ruling by moral influence and ruling by punishment was not always clearly delineated. For example, li could be enforced by moral influence and legal means. The metamorphosis of li into law depended on its widespread and unvaried acceptance by society.
Although the codification of law was largely completed by the Tang Code of CE 624, throughout the centuries the Confucian foundations of the Tang Code were retained, and indeed with some aspects of it strengthened by the later dynasties.
The Confucian notion that morality and self-discipline was more important than legal codes caused many historians, such as Max Weber, until the mid-20th century to conclude that law was not an important part of Imperial Chinese society. This notion, however, has come under extreme criticism and is no longer the conventional wisdom among Sinologists, who have concluded that Imperial China had an elaborate system of both criminal and civil law which was comparable to anything found in Europe.
During the Qing dynasty, criminal justice was based on extremely detailed Great Qing Legal Code. One element of the traditional Chinese criminal justice system is the notion that criminal law has a moral purpose, one of which is to get the convicted to repent and see the error of his ways. In the traditional Chinese legal system, a person could not be convicted of a crime unless he has confessed. This often led to the use of torture, in order to extract the necessary confession. These elements still influence modern Chinese views toward law. All capital offenses were reported to the capital and required the personal approval of the emperor.
There was no civil code separate from the criminal code, which led to the now discredited belief that traditional Chinese law had no civil law. More recent studies have demonstrated that most of the magistrates' legal work was in civil disputes, and that there was an elaborate system of civil law which used the criminal code to establish torts.
In the late Qing dynasty there was a concerted effort to establish legal codes based on European models. Because of the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War and because Japan was used as the model for political and legal reform, the law codes which were adopted were modelled closely after that of Germany.
Attitudes toward the traditional Chinese legal system changed markedly in the late-20th century. Most Chinese and Westerners of the early 20th century regarded the traditional Chinese legal system as backward and barbaric. However, extensive research into China's traditional legal system has caused attitudes to become more favorable in the late-20th and early 21st centuries. Researchers of the early and mid-20th century tended to compare the traditional Chinese legal system to then contemporary systems, finding the former to be backward. However, more recent research compared the 18th century Chinese legal system to European systems of the 18th century, resulting in a far more positive view of traditional Chinese law.
The Department of Punishment was changed to fa bu (法部: "Department of Law") in the early 1900s legal reforms.
After the Communist victory in 1949, the People's Republic of China quickly abolished the ROC's legal codes and attempted to create a system of socialist law copied from the Soviet Union. With the Sino-Soviet split and the Cultural Revolution, all legal work was suspected of being counter-revolutionary, and the legal system completely collapsed.
Over the past century, there have been numerous constitutions in China. The first attempts towards implementing a constitution in China were made during the final decade of the Qing Dynasty. Several constitutions were subsequently promulgated by various controlling groups between that time and the establishment of the PRC. The PRC had a provisional constitution from its inception until the enactment of its first constitution in 1954. This initial constitution was based on the constitution of the Soviet Union. It was shortly ignored, however, and became without legal force. Although it provided that the National People’s Congress (NPC) would be elected every four years as the highest state power, these guidelines were not adhered to. The second constitution of the PRC was modeled on the ideology of the Cultural Revolution and promulgated in 1975. This constitution subjected the NPC to the Communist Party and removed previous constitutional protections such as equality under the law and private property succession rights. It was also immediately disregarded through breaches of its provisions and inadherence to guidelines regarding the NPC. The third constitution of the PRC was adopted in 1978. Although this version moved away from the ideologies of the Cultural Revolution, it did retain some remnants of it. It also retained Communist Party control over the state structure. However, reformists subsequently gained power, which lead to the breakdown of this constitution as focus shifted to economic construction and modernization.
With the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms, the need for reconstructing a legal system to restrain abuses of official authority and revolutionary excesses was seen. In 1982, the National People's Congress adopted a new state constitution that emphasized the rule of law under which even party leaders are theoretically held accountable. This reconstruction was done in piece-meal fashion. Typically, temporary or local regulations would be established and after a few years of experimentation, conflicting regulations and laws would be standardized.
The current Constitution of the PRC was enacted in 1982 and reflects the model of the first PRC constitution. The Constitution provides that leadership is through the working class, which in turn is led by the Communist Party. It also contains the principle of democratic centralism. This principle has four rules providing that individuals are subordinate to organizations, the minority is subordinate to the majority, lower-levels are subordinate to higher-levels, and local level authority is subordinate to central authority. This Constitution also contains more extensive rights than any of the previous constitutions. The rights include equality before the law, political rights, religious freedom, personal freedom, social and economic rights, cultural and educational rights, and familial rights. These rights, however, are connected to social duties. The duties include safeguarding the unity, security, honor, and interests of the country, observing law and social ethics, paying taxes, and serving in the military. Neither the rights nor duties provided for in the Constitution are exhaustive.
The Constitution provides that the NPC is the supreme organ of state power over a structure of other people’s congresses at various levels. The NPC has power to amend the Constitution by a two-thirds majority, promulgate legislation, elect and remove highest-level officials, determine the budget, and control economic and social development planning. The NPC also includes a Standing Committee that functions much as the NPC does when the NPC is not in session. Although the Standing Committee has had some powers since 1955, its law-making powers were initially provided for in the 1982 Constitution. The NPC sits at the highest level in the hierarchy of governmental structure in the PRC. This national level is followed in descending order by the provincial level (including autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the national level), the prefectural level, the county level, and the townships and towns level. Government members at the lower two levels are directly elected, and those at the higher levels are elected by the lower levels. In addition to the NPC, the provincial people’s congresses possesses legislative power and can pass laws so long as they do not contravene the Constitution or higher legislation or administrative regulations.
The Constitution states its own supremacy. However, it has been theorized that the supremacy of the Communist Party means that the Constitution and law are not supreme, and that this perspective is the result of the Marxist view of law as simply a superstructure combined with a lack of recognition of rule of law in philosophical or historical tradition. Although the Constitution provides for legislative, executive, judicial, and procuratorial powers, they are all still subject to Communist Party leadership. Often, important political decisions are made through actions which are not regulated by the Constitution. Additionally, courts may not rely on the Constitution in deciding cases, and they may not review legislation for Constitutionality. Nonetheless the Constitution does provide the linguistic framework for conducting government affairs and describing them in the media.
Since 1979, when the drive to establish a functioning legal system began, more than 300 laws and regulations, most of them in the economic area, have been promulgated. The use of mediation committees, informed groups of citizens who resolve about 90% of the PRC's civil disputes and some minor criminal cases at no cost to the parties, is one innovative device. There are more than 800,000 such committees in both rural and urban areas.
In drafting the new laws, the PRC has declined to copy any other legal system wholesale, and the general pattern has been to issue laws for a specific topic or location. Often laws are drafted on a trial basis, with the law being redrafted after several years. This process of creating a legal infrastructure piecemeal has led to many situations where the laws are missing, confusing, or contradictory, and has led to judicial decisions having more precedental value than in most civil law jurisdiction. In formulating laws, the PRC has been influenced by a number of sources including traditional Chinese views toward the role of law, the PRC's socialist background, the German-based law of the Republic of China on Taiwan, and the English-based common law used in Hong Kong. The law of the United States has also been very influential particularly in the area of banking and securities law.
Legal reform became a government priority in the 1990s. The Chinese government has promoted a reform it often calls "legalisation" (法制化). Legalisation, among other things, has provided the regime with a gloss of legitimacy and has enhanced predictability. There have been major efforts in the rationalisation and strengthening of the legal structure and institution building in terms of developing and improving the professionalism of the legislature, judiciary and legal profession. As market reforms have deepened and social inequality has widened, legal forums - ranging from mediation and arbitration commissions to courts - have come to play an increasingly prominent role.
The 1994 Administrative Procedure Law allows citizens to sue officials for abuse of authority or malfeasance. In addition, the criminal law and the criminal procedures laws were amended to introduce significant reforms. The criminal law amendments abolished the crime of "counter- revolutionary" activity. However political dissidents are sometimes charged on the grounds of subverting state security or publishing state secrets. Criminal procedures reforms also encouraged establishment of a more transparent, adversarial trial process. Minor crimes such as prostitution and drug use are sometimes dealt with under reeducation through labor laws. The PRC constitution and laws provide for fundamental human rights, including due process, but some have argued that they are often ignored in practice. (See human rights in the People's Republic of China)
The basic principles of Chinese legislative drafting include generality and flexibility. Sometimes excessive generality and omissions in Chinese law, coupled with the wide discretionary powers conferred on local authorities to implement laws, undermines the predictability and certainty of law. Furthermore, as Chinese law is intended to be educative, the language of the law is that of the ordinary language comprehensible to the average citizen, although many laws are drafted in broad and indeterminate language.
As a result of a pending trade war with the United States of America over violations of intellectual property rights of American corporations in the early 1990s, the People's Republic of China's trademark law has been modified and now offers significant protections to foreign trademark owners.
After the transfers of sovereignty, Hong Kong and Macau continue to practise English Common Law and Portuguese legal systems respectively, with their own courts of final appeal. In other words, Hong Kong and Macau are outside of the legal jurisdiction of the People's Republic of China, except on constitutional issues.
Due to the growing sophistication of Chinese laws, the expansion of the rule of law, as well as an influx of foreign law firms, China has also begun to develop a legal services market. Foreign lawyers have accompanied foreign capital and their clients to China which has had an immense influence on the promulgation of new Chinese laws based on international norms, especially in regards to intellectual property and corporate and securities law.
On July 1, 1992, in order to meet growing demand, the Chinese government opened the legal services market to foreign law firms allowing them to establish offices in China when the Ministry of Justice and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAOIC) issued the Provisional Regulation of Establishment of Offices by Foreign Law Firms regulation. As a result, many foreign law firms, including the United States' Baker & McKenzie and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, along with several British firms, incorporated consulting firms in their home countries or Hong Kong and then set up subsidiaries in Beijing or Shanghai to provide legal services.
However, there still many regulatory barriers to entry to protect the domestic legal industry. Issues relating to Chinese law must be referred to Chinese law firms and foreign lawyers are also prohibited from interpreting or practicing Chinese law nor representing their clients in court. However, in reality many foreign law firms interpret laws and manage litigation by directing the local firms they must have cooperative relationships with. In this regards China's restrictive legal market can be directly tied to a phobia of people asserting their legal rights in the face of rampant corruption. Information received from the State Council Legislative Office suggests that China may be allowing foreigners to sit the Chinese Lawyers Examination, or have a mutual recognition treaty with other countries to allow foreign lawyers to conduct non-litigation Chinese legal work.
While the trend in China’s legal landscape is to continue to open up the legal market, China’s laws and regulations have helped develop a number of domestic Chinese firms to specializing to meet demand of a booming economy. According to Asia Law and Business magazine China Awards, the top China firms were King & Wood PRC Lawyers, Commerce & Finance Law Offices, Fangda Partners, Haiwen & Partners, and Jun He Law Offices.
The existence of the rule of law in China has been widely debated. There are differing theories of the rule of law. One theory is the thin, or formal, theory of rule of law, and the other is the thick theory. The thin theory of rule of law is described by Randall Peerenboom as at the basest level incorporating a legal system that imposes meaningful restraints on the state and individuals in ruling power, that the law is supreme, and that all citizens are equal before the law (Peerenboom, 2). According to Lon Fuller’s account of thin theory, rule of law exists in a society when the laws of that society are “general, public, prospective, clear, consistent, capable of being followed, stable, and enforced” (Peerenboom, 3). The thin theory has also been explained by Joseph Raz as emphasizing the formal or instrumental aspects of a legal system regardless of whether it is part of a particular political structure, i.e. a democratic or non-democratic society. Thick theory rule of law espouses all the elements of thin theory s in addition imposes a political, social, and economic concept into the rule of law. The rule of law is regarded by some as presupposing political or economic structures of liberal democracy, human rights and other ideal socio-legal order. Some scholars believe that given China's socialist and non-democratic political system and practice, it is at best regarded as a country of rule by law with law used by the state as an instrument for social control. However, others rely on the formal or thin theory of rule of law to interpret fazhi as a legal reality in China. Additionally, some believe that China may still fall short of the thin theory of rule of law.
The term fazhi was first used by the Legalist school of pre-Han China. Chinese scholars have drawn a particular distinction between fazhi today and the Legalist fazhi, pointing out that the concept in the past equated to renzhi (人治: "rule by man"). Until recently, most conflicts were resolved through social connections, and resolution through the court system was frowned upon. While social connections are still important, more and more Chinese people view courts as an appropriate venue to resolve conflicts.
Despite the newly elevated role of courts in Chinese society, there still remains consensus about some defects in China’s legal system, vis-à-vis progress in achieving rule of law. Scholars point to the following defects as slowing movement toward rule of law.
First, the National People’s Congress is ineffective at executing its constitutional duty to legislate and supervise the government (Albert Hung-yee Chen, An Introduction to the Legal Systems of the People’s Republic of China, Butterworths Asia (1992), 80-82).
Second, the Chinese Constitution is not treated as the supreme law, nor is it enforced (Chen, 107; Randal Peerenboom, China’s Long March Toward Rule of Law, Cambridge University Press (2002), 61).
Third, the judiciary is not independent from political pressure. On the other hand, direct intervention in particular cases by the CCP has lessened in recent years, as has the direct influence of the CCP on the legislative process (Chen, 106, 117-121).
Fourth, there is a high level of corruption among public officials. Personal favors, bribery, and taking of public monies are all too common at all levels of government (Peerenboom, 295-297).
Finally, the legal profession is inadequate for lack of qualified attorneys and judges (Chen, 121-123). This failure is currently being remedied by legislation aimed at instituting higher educational standards for judges, opening more courts and law schools throughout China (Peerenboom, 290-293).