In recent years, Chinese central authorities have turned against a range of legal reforms that they had pursued in the late 20th century. They have de-emphasized judicial professionalization. They have increased the harassment and abuse of public interest lawyers. And since 2006, Party authorities have pursued “Socialist Rule of Law” political campaigns re-emphasizing Party supremacy and warning against the infiltration of “Western” rule-of-law concepts. (For more on this, see here.)
Official Chinese rhetoric with regard to legal reform has also changed. Comparing two State Council White Papers - China’s Efforts and Achievements in Promoting the Rule of Law (2008) and the Socialist Legal System With Chinese Characteristics (2011) illustrates this shift.
Differences between the 2008 and 2011 White Papers include:
- From “Rule of Law” to “Socialist System of Laws With Chinese Characteristics”
In contrast, the 2011 white paper extensively employs the phrase “Socialist System of Laws with Chinese Characteristics (zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi falu tixi).
- Shift Away From Acknowledging Need for Reform
The 2008 white paper acknowledged
existing problems. [“Some government functionaries take bribes and bend the law, abuse their power when executing the law, abuse their authority to override the law . . .”]
It links continued legal reforms with the need to address these problems.
The 2008 white paper also linked reform-era legal reform efforts with the need to address problems in the pre-1978 Chinese political and legal systems. [“The goal was to make the system and laws stable, consistent, and authoritative, not changing with changes of state leaders or state leaders’ opinions or attention . . .”]
In contrast, such language is significantly reduced, if not entirely absent, in the 2011 white paper.
- New Emphasis That Legal Reform Has Been Largely Completed
The 2008 white paper emphasized that legal reform remains a work in progress. In contrast, the 2011 white paper emphasizes that legal reform has been largely completed.
Compare: “A socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics has been solidly put into place” (2011) with “Entering the 21st century, China is continuing this undertaking [promoting the rule of law]” (2008).
- More Wary Attitude Toward Foreign Models
The 2008 white paper contained an entire chapter touting China’s international exchanges and cooperation with foreign countries and international organizations in legal reform efforts.
The 2011 document lacks any such section. Indeed, the 2011 document has a section that extensively stresses the differences (and inapplicability) of foreign models.