Law was supposed to be the solution.
Horrified by the chaos of the Maoist era, Chinese authorities rebuilt their legal system in the 1980s and 1990s. They trained judges in law. They allowed lawyers a degree of autonomy to represent their clients. They emphasized the need to resolve disputes in court - and according to law - rather than through politicized struggle sessions. They even enacted administrative laws giving citizens limited rights to challenge the power of local officials. Central to all of these efforts: a search for stable institutions to resolve citizen grievances, albeit under firm Party control.
But Chinese leaders are now turning against these reforms. Some concerns are practical. They now criticize the earlier emphasis on professionalizing the judiciary, viewing it as inappropriate for rural Chinese courts hampered by a lack of legally-trained personnel, and often handling disputes according to time-honored local traditions. Other concerns are political. Central authorities worry that decades of official rule-of-law rhetoric are fueling surging numbers of petitions and protests by citizens seeking to protect their rights, and even leading some officials to perceive law as superior to Party policy. They also fear that China’s cadre of public interest lawyers might emerge as a core of Mideast-style protest movements.
This has generated a backlash. Official harassment of legal activists and public interest lawyers is increasing. Since 2008, central authorities have launched campaigns to reinstall Chinese judges with the proper respect for Party doctrine. And Chinese authorities are making strong efforts to shift citizen disputes away from court trials, decided according to law. Instead, they are placing heavy pressure on judges to resolve cases through mediation, and reviving extrajudicial Maoist-era mediation institutions that had fallen in disuse during the reform era.