Legal Development in China: Perspectives from Washington

What is economic law? What is the rule of law? What did it mean for China 30 years ago and what does it mean today? These were just some of the complex questions that Professor Natalie Lichtenstein sought to answer in her discussion of legal developments in China.

Lichtenstein began by reviewing both origins of US law and foundational philosophies that have guided Chinese legal development. After touching on the Magna Carta and the US Constitution, she pointed out that China's legal history begins thousands of years ago. Chinese legal history does not have a divine origin and sources from several competing philosophies, including Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Mohism, and others. Unlike legal schools of thought in the United States, the majority in China held that peace and prosperity were of ultimate importance and that morality was, therefore, superior to the rule of law.

After the Cultural Revolution, China was a post-conflict society seeking to bring an end to a period of relative lawlessness.  As it considered reforms of its underdeveloped legal system, China had the benefit of learning from the experiences of other, better established, legal systems and then designing its own procedures and policy.

Immediately after the implementation of China's Reform and Opening policies, China’s engagement with the international economy helped to usher in a new era of economic reform transforming China's legal system to include clearer legislation and better enforcement mechanisms and procedures.

Yet today many of these mechanisms and procedures still lack consistency and potency, particularly in the petitioning, land rights, and household registration systems. Also, the ruling Communist Party in China retains potentially decisive influence over the courts.  Without knowing the extensiveness of political interference in the courts, without legal accountability for the ruling party, and without a judiciary that offers equal treatment to all in the courts, China will continue to lack the essential elements of an independent, modern, and professional legal system.

Professor Natalie Lichtenstein is a Professorial Lecturer in China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Recently retired after working for 30 years as a World Bank Lawyer, she is the author of many publications concerning legal structures and reform in East Asia.



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