Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University, takes a look at the PRC’s legal system at the East Asia Forum. Cohen comments that while the PRC has made impressive strides in the area of legal reform, problems like corruption and local protectionism are still endemic, leaving room for but dim “prospects for immediate significant reforms.”
In early 1978 there was almost no contemporary legislation, nor was the PRC a party to the many multilateral and bilateral agreements necessary for successful international relations. The courts and the procuracy were a shambles, the legal profession long since abolished, as was the Ministry of Justice. Legal education and scholarship had barely begun to revive. Today, thirty years later, the situation has dramatically improved. A multitude of new laws and regulations are now on the books, with more to come. These norms help to guide the country’s prodigious economic achievements and foreign investment and technology transfer. The PRC has also adhered to most of the multilateral treaties that grease the wheels of international relations and commerce and has a dense network of bilateral agreements with all major countries.
Yet, the ‘socialist rule of law’ invoked by Party and government leaders is a far cry from any of the rule of law’s commonly understood meanings. Despite the importation of Western norms and forms, including constitutional endorsement of the rule of law, human rights and property rights, the Party makes no bones about its airtight control of the judiciary and the legal system generally. Its central political-legal committee and local Party counterparts ‘coordinate’ the work of the courts, the procuracy, the Ministry of Justice, the legal profession, and the regular and secret police.