Visit WIDE ANGLE on pbs.org
Video Help Video Bank
Trust in the Law (4:11) Excerpt from film "The People's Court", July 2007
Complaints made by citizens demonstrate that China's legal system has not yet fully gained the people's trust.

Country: China

click to enlarge
Download video:
(PC: right click & select Save Target As) (Mac: hold down CTRL button & click)
Quicktime (6816k) Realplayer (8002k) Windows Media (6559k)

Guiding Questions
  1. What are the judges trying to achieve by visiting the market?

  2. What is corruption? List two possible instances of corruption mentioned in this segment.

  3. Why might judges in China face an uphill battle gaining the trust of Chinese citizens? What strategies might a government take to try to convince people of the fairness of their governing institutions?
Background Essay
The principle of "the rule of law" was only recently adopted into China's Constitution. All citizens are now recognized as equal before the law in principle, but many Chinese still are not fully aware of the rights that they hold under the law. Changing the Chinese legal system is a work in progress, requiring changes in the way things have been done for thousands of years.

When China's Civil war ended in 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party established the People's Republic of China. They wanted to centralize power, unify the country and develop China's industry and infrastructure. A few of Mao Zedong's nationwide projects were the Great Leap Forward, a 5-year economic and social plan that he initiated in 1958, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Unfortunately, at the end of the Maoist era, the economy and the education system of China were very weak.

Deng Xiaoping, who became China's leader in 1976, introduced new policies to encourage economic growth. Large segments of the economy were cut loose from direct state control. The private sector boomed, a new class of entrepreneurs prospered and China's formal legal system was re-established. At the same time, however, the Communist Party remained in control of a one-party, authoritarian state and a growing gap between rich and poor emerged. Employers used their newfound market power to exploit workers. Tensions developed. Conflicting claims of property rights came to be a significant problem.

The government of China decided to address these issues by trying to expand and modernize the legal system. Since the 1980s the country has opened almost 400 law schools, training hundreds of thousands of lawyers and judges. The country has also created education campaigns to encourage people to settle their issues in court rather than on the streets.

Before 1995, many judges did not have college degrees or much knowledge about the law. Since 1995, the requirements to become a judge have gotten stricter: now judges need to have a university degree and must pass a national exam. However, the judges are appointed and paid by the one-party government. Their decisions, as well as decisions and actions of lawyers, are often influenced by the Communist Party and local governments. Many Chinese citizens are bothered by the corruption they see as widespread in China.

In 2003, Hu Jintao was elected as the President of the People's Republic of China. His challenges include trying to find solutions to China's economic, social and environmental problems. One of his initiatives, the Socialist Core Value System, encourages honesty and law-abiding and ethical behavior among all Chinese citizens. Whether President Hu's goals lead to real improvements will be a key measure of China's progress toward implementing the rule of law.

The Gongxian judges run a regular information stall in the local market, another part of the plan to make the new laws more accessible.

Do you have any flyers about housing disputes?

- Yes.

If you want a divorce, you can do it through the court. You should bring your marriage certificate and your residency permit. But you have to think over many things: your relationship with your husband, your kids, how to divide up your property, what you want...

Tensions are never far below the surface.

The Party Secretary of our village is a real bully. We have to keep our heads down.

What's his name?

Zeng Qiang. He always bullies us.

Come to my office.

For six years the government has been trying to silence us.

I work as a judge for the local government. If you have anything to report, I'll sort it out for you. My name is Tian.

Talk to them.

I don't want to talk to them, because I know all the officials are corrupt and are protecting each other.

The woman is quickly whisked away.

Three quarters of all Chinese think corruption is rife in China.

The government itself reports that tens of billions of dollars are embezzled by state officials every year.

They're all protecting each other. That's the way it is here, and there's nothing we can do about it.

The judges have an uphill task in asking people to trust them.


We'd reached the limits of what the courts would allow us to film, and headed back to the provincial capital, Chengdu. On the way, a sign of why the lack of trust in officials is so pervasive.

This cement factory is typical of the Maoist era industry of the 1950s and 60s.

It spews clouds of dust and noxious gases over Gongxian and the surrounding area.

As soon as our camera was spotted, some local peasants sought their chance to be heard.

The situation is very serious. The pollution is really bad.

- It's dusty. Very, very dusty.

It's really harmful.

As you can see from the chimney, the smoke is very thick, full of dust.

I've got lung problems and they've never been checked out.

- Do you think the factory should be shut down?

No. Not shut down. They should put a filter on the chimney.

- Yes! It should be closed.

- They should at least do something about the pollution. According to the law, they should invest in equipment to help prevent it.

- Do you think the pollution is affecting your baby?

Just look at his hair! It's yellow, not black.

- Have you talked to the court?

It's useless. They just give you the run-around. No one wants to take responsibility. We complain but they just ignore us. The problems can't be solved.

That's how our society is.

Their frustration is only made worse by the difficulty in accessing lawyers - with one lawyer for every ten thousand people, they're few and far between.

Lawyers rely on local officials to renew their licenses from year to year.

It's one of the reasons taking on cases against officials and state-linked companies can be a risky business.

Related Links
The People's Court on PBS.org

CIA World Factbook: China

Chinese Constitution, Criminal Procedure Law, Civil Procedure Law, and others translated into English

World Factbook of Criminal Justice System: China

Foreign Affairs "Don't Break the Engagement" (May/June 2004)

Print Classroom Tips