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The Rule of Law (2:43) Excerpt from film "The People's Court", July 2007
In China, the adoption of a legal system based on the rule of law is a relatively recent development. Prior to the 1970s, the legal system was completely different.

Country: China

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Guiding Questions
  1. How recently did the government of China adopt the principle of the rule of law into its constitution? Why might it be difficult for China to make the rule of law a reality?

  2. In recent previous history did law in China emphasize the interests of the state or protection of the individual?

  3. Give examples of other countries in which a large-scale shift in a political system led to shifting legal structures and conceptions of individual and group rights.
Background Essay
As recently as the 1960s, the legal system in China was dramatically different than it is today. The concept of individual rights is new to a Chinese legal system that used to focus on protecting the state's interests over those of individual citizens. Moving to a legal system that is more similar to the European and American one requires a rapid learning curve. In China's packed law schools, many of the case studies focus on labor and employment issues.

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.

Professor Wang often meets here with his post-graduate students.

Studying law shouldn't just be about making money. There should be something more to it than that.

It should be about becoming a more socially responsible person.

When China's leaders embraced a market economy in the late 1970s, a modern legal system was needed to go with it.

The principle of "the rule of law" was only recently adopted in China's Constitution for the first time ever.

The USA and Britain have had three hundred years to develop their legal systems. Remember, China's only had about twenty.

Many of the law classes at Sichuan University focus on labor and employment issues.

Today we're going to talk about a real case involving a labor dispute.

What kind of case is it?

An administrative case.

Since the worker didn't sign a contract with the company, it's difficult to prove he was an employee.

Not having a contract, he should try to find witnesses to prove that he was in fact employed by the company.

Young law students may take the existence of a modern legal system for granted. But their teachers' generation remembers the Cultural Revolution, a period when the law was arbitrary and society was turned upside down.

In the 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution ended, people had no concept of the rule of law.

Before the upheavals of the last century, China had a legal tradition that mainly served the authority of the state.

We never used to talk about individual rights because Chinese tradition emphasizes protecting society.

Today, all citizens are recognized as equal before the law in principle - but it's a work-in-progress.

We're changing the relationship between the citizen and the state.

Modernizing the law means developing the idea of individual rights. That requires changing people's way of thinking and thousand-year-old habits.

Soon these students will take their place as judges and lawyers in courtrooms across China.

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)

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