Is the Rule of Law Coming to China?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jinan Intermediate People's Court/Handout

Is the Rule of Law Coming to China?


The recently concluded first trial of the Bo Xilai case has turned out – quite unexpectedly to many disillusioned Chinese and seasoned overseas China watchers – to be astonishingly transparent and sophisticated in terms of legal reasoning and argumentation. As it is being celebrated as a landmark in China’s legal development, less dramatic but more profound change has already taken place in China on its long march towards the rule of law.

The changed occurred at the 18th Party Congress. One of the two positions dropped from the Politburo formerly belonged to the chief of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, the party organ overseeing the making and enforcement of law in China. This is regarded as a loosening of the party’s grip over the legal system. Meanwhile, Zhou Qiang put the emphasis once again on judicial professionalization in his first public speech as newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court. Based on his words at least, it would appear that the controversial motto of the “Three Supremes,” which prioritizes party interests over the Constitution and law, is finally put to rest.

Rule by Lawyers

Other signs that bode well for the rule of law in China. At their inauguration, incoming President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both solemnly pledged that “We will be true to the Constitution,” a promise never openly made by any of the leaders in the history of the People’s Republic. The contrast is all the sharper when viewed in a historical context: half a century ago, President Liu Shaoqi waved his Constitution helplessly and futilely in front of the militant red guards; the supreme law of the land was incapable of protecting even the head of state at that time. It is virtually inconceivable that Xi or Li would permit or face such misfortune nowadays. Unlike Chairman Mao, who once proudly claimed to journalist Edgar Snow that he was above the law, both Xi and Li have degrees in that very subject (although more on this below).

There is more. During the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference earlier this year, among the media headlines were reports on just how many of the national leaders have a background in law. In fact, seven out of the 25 members of the Politburo were reported as either holding a degree in law or as having received legal training. This has been widely appreciated by both the state media and Chinese netizens as a propitious sign for the rule of law in China. Some even declare that China is now entering an era of rule by lawyers.

Whether or not the rule of law can be conflated with rule by lawyers is worth debating. But many Chinese do have good reason to celebrate and be hopeful this time. Many mainland Chinese are convinced that a salient feature of more mature and advanced nations is that they are led by lawyers. Chinese need not look to distant examples like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy or Tony Blair; the two most recent leaders of Taiwan are inspiration enough. Chinese legal scholars often make a historic comparison, noting that more than half of the American founding fathers were lawyers whereas none of the founders of the PRC were trained in law. So a Chinese desire for some of the critical ingredients of the rule of law is not just a recent phenomenon.

As such, the rise of legal education and the emergence of social segments with a legal background in China is sure to be welcomed. Thirty years ago, China had only a handful of law schools and no more than 1000 law graduates each year. Now there are more than 600 law schools producing 150,000 freshly minted legal professionals every year. The total number of practicing lawyers in China has jumped from 8,571 in 1981 to around 230,000 today. And lawyers have made their presence in Chinese public life increasingly felt. Today, 3,976 serve as deputies of the people’s congresses or members of the people’s political consultative conferences at varying levels. Among them, 16 are national deputies and 22 are national members. Ordinary Chinese might hope that these lawyers will bring to policymaking not only legal expertise but, more importantly, a deep commitment to justice. Certainly that is the hope for national leaders with a legal background.

September 15, 2013 at 18:59

Let look back China history since Confucianism came to light! Let look back the history of  HOW Han dynasty became today Greater China ! Can you confirm HOW MANY ETHNIC MINORITY are there in today 1.34 billion Chinese population ? Most Western universities researchers ARE NOT OLD ENOUGH  to thoroughly understand China's ACTUAL 3,000 years history. No Western countries people  would know  Chinese (Han ethnic) culture,mentality and mindset  BETTER than Indian,Tibetan,Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Myanmaran(Burmese).

No Western researcher know Communism better than Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese because  they have lived in it.

The earliest Western country that knows roughly  about China and sent an envoy to China is Roman empire at the time of Qin dynasty, but no diplomatic relation established  .And the next Western country that actually contacted China is Portugal empire in 16th century ( not including Marco Polo trip to China in 12th century of Yuan dynasty) .Therefore, the Rule of Law for China  IS WHAT Tibetan and Uighur guarantee that : JUST  WORDS OF MOUTH.


September 15, 2013 at 10:21

Rule of law and china? Talk about oxymoron.

9 dashes,,4 dishes - 1 soup
September 11, 2013 at 22:10

Bo will need a job later on. I think he would make a great Mayor of New York. His son will be a US citizen by the time Bo is released. What’s to stop him? I think New Yorkers will love to link arms and sing red songs.

We haven’t heard the last of Bo Xilai.

Rick Bartus
September 11, 2013 at 17:58

Was this article published solely for the Diplomat?

September 11, 2013 at 13:22

Guagua Bo is going to attend Columbia Law School. As the son of our handsome princeling Xilai, Guagua will go back to China, after finishing his studies in the USA and together with Mingze Xi will bring Law and Order and Justice to the Hukuo-masses waiting to sing red songs with the new Loberating Forces cleaning the land of a mass line of tigers shrimps and flies.

Let the Proletariat Rise in the East!

September 11, 2013 at 11:49

Live in the present!  The saying:  " 江山是我們打下來的! 難道他們要限制我們的權利嗎?" Translated to:  We have conquered the land and it is our privilege to rule unlimited.  Whoever said that are already dead long time ago or having at least two feet in the coffin.  Their children had been enriched in the last thiry years.  No one should inherit those power any more.  China is in a changing path now.

September 11, 2013 at 11:40

The last time I visited the village was only two months ago.  This time it was different from my previous visits.  The villagers are trying to convince me that Xi JinPing really mean business in terms of anti-grafts investigation.  Basically China was in some way having rule of law after thirty years of development.  However, curbing officials power and corruption are the remaining problems for the rule of law in the country.  The villagers had spoken of 20% of all levels of officials have either disappeared or been arrested for wrong doings.  The villagers said it with a smile.

September 11, 2013 at 10:04

There is no normal rule of law in China.  As for anything in China, the CCP Politburo makes the final decision whether Bo is guilty.  The CCP P is the Rule of law!

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
September 11, 2013 at 09:39

Thought-provoking analysis Onymous. 


I think this is a well-written & well-reasoned article, better than what most Mainland Chinese writers contribute to the Diplomat. But there is one fundamental problem. "Rule of law" is an idea that is thrown around a lot. But nobody ever bothers to define exactly what it means. It's like the word 'soul'. Or In the China context, it's like the word 'collapse'. 


I don't know if China will 'collapse'. I don't know if China will acquire the 'rule of law' because I don't know what that means.  This author does a good job of alluding to four categories. But he still doesn't give us a definition. 


Since this is a foreign affairs publication though, I can say it probably doesn't matter. China is an irredentist power. It is grabbing other nations' territories, inter alia. Any 'rule of law' will likely incorporate that irredentism. Likewise, so will any 'collapse'. So ultimately, nations need to protect themselves – whether China acquires the 'rule of law' or not. 


Finally, I think about three countries that supposedly have the 'rule of law' (whatever that phrase means), India, UK and the US.  India has an independent and powerful legal system. But I don't think anyone could accuse it of being a well-governed country. 


The UK is a bad case study. For some odd reason, English did not trust their law makers to make laws. They to prefer to rely on judges who set precedents that are often perverse, crazy or just plain irrelevant. 


Last but not least, the US (except for one state)  -  took the perverted English Common Law system and set lawyers loose to wreak havoc. I don't think any of these nations would be a good example for China to follow. The EU & Civil Code is probably a better example follow. But since that would be succumbing to a Western influence, I doubt China would want to go down that road. 


But ultimately, it doesn't matter. China is an irredentist, aggressive foreign power. No change in its legal system will alter what is coming. 


September 11, 2013 at 08:42

there is no rule of law in china and never will be, i have lived here since obama took office, western perception is a long way from the neanderthal third world i live in here, but the taxes are much lower on my income and my standard of living is 40 percent higher than america.


September 11, 2013 at 07:12

This is nothing but yet more United Front propaganda:  teasing with weasel words to excite the complacent fantasies of foreigners willing to be "fascinated" by China.  Nonsense!  Foreigners need to face the reality that some things about China just never change.  Bo Xilai got his day in court only because he is so strongly supported by powerful elements within the Communist Party.  Bo is Xi Jinping's chief rival for leadership, both being the hardened, unscrupulous sons of co-founders of the PRC.  Bo is a chief princeling; they think they own the country, as hereditary aristocrats used to do in Europe.  This is merely a squabble between lordly grandees in China's version of the post-Napoleonic phase of the French Revolution.  As Deng Xiaoping is reputed to have said when it was explained to him that the demonstrators in spring 1989 were proposing consitutional limits on the Party's power, 江山是我們打下來的! 難道他們要限制我們的權利嗎?Can anyone imagine an ordinary person being able to put on such a performance?  Rubbish.  

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