Transformations of China’s Legal System

As a new decade dawned, legal scholars published a large body of writings to advocate the rule of law, which played a very important role in spreading its principles.

On December 4, 1982, the Fifth Session of the Fifth NPC passed a new constitution, popularly known as the 1982 Constitution. It was an important milestone in China’s history of the rule of law and served as a pillar of the legal system in the new era.

Thereafter, a batch of fundamental laws concerning civil affairs, administration and commercial activities were passed, including the General Principles of the Civil Law, the Administrative Procedure Law, Contract Law, Property Law, Company Law, and the Enterprise Bankruptcy Law. In 2011, Wu Bangguo, then chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC, announced that a socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics had been formed.

By April 2014, China had 242 laws in force. Meanwhile, the formulation and amendment of 68 laws have been put on the agenda of the NPC and its standing committee. In contrast to the previous legislation that centered on fundamental areas, the current laws-in-the-making focus on specific concerns of the public, such as food safety, education and environmental protection.


From Building a Legal System to the Rule of Law

“It took 20 years for China to move from ‘building a legal system’ to ‘achieving the rule of law,’ a journey rife with obstacles that jurisprudential circles are all too aware of,” Li Buyun said.

“China has a long history of feudalism. In a country where rule of man has deep roots, upholding the rule of law marks historic progress. It is of epoch-making significance,” said Wang Jiafu, former director of the CASS Institute of Law.

Since the 15th CPC National Congress the phrase “rule of law” has been cropping up with increasing frequency. In 1999, a new paragraph was added to the Constitution, “the People’s Republic of China governs the country according to law and makes it a socialist country under the rule of law.” In 2002, the 16th CPC National Congress set the comprehensive implementation of the rule of law as an important goal for building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. In 2004, “the State respects and preserves human rights” was included into the Constitution.

In 2012, during the 18th CPC National Congress, the function of the rule of law was redefined as a basic way of running the country. And new principles were also outlined – to make laws in a scientific way, enforce them strictly, administer justice impartially, and ensure that everyone abides by the law. During the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, “promoting the rule of law in China” was set as one of the key themes of comprehensively deepening reform.


From the Rule of Law to the Rule of the Constitution

The year 2004 was a turning point for the rule of law in China. “China’s legal structure was entering the stage of socialist constitutionalism, which is an advanced stage of the rule of law,” said Xu Xianming, former president of China University of Political Science and Law.

He believes there are six symbolic events: First, the country’s decision to integrate the CPC leadership, the position of the people as masters of the country, and the rule of law in the cause of promoting socialist democracy.Second, the statement that “the State respects and preserves human rights” was included into the Constitution. Third, governing the country according to the law was set as the basic way of exercising power. Fourth, the CPC Central Committee put forward a scientific outlook on development with the focus on people, forming a people-oriented view of law. Fifth, the State Council promulgated the Outline for Promoting Law-based Administration in an All-round Way, announcing its plan of building the government under the rule of law. Sixth, democracy and the rule of law were set as the first of the six basic characteristics of a socialist harmonious society.

In 2007 during the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the rule of law being raised as a fundamental principle of governance in China, some legal experts believed that China had entered the phase of socialist constitutionalism. At that time, Li Lin, director of the CASS Institute of Law, summed up the 10 years of legal development in China by saying that one of its most important achievements was to propose the concepts of “the rule of the Constitution” and “governing in line with the Constitution,” so highlighting the supreme authority of the Constitution.

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