Westerners spend a lot of time thinking about "rule of law," not just within their own domestic legal orders, but as a generalized concept of national and international law. Rule of law and the principle of democratic organization of political power stand now as the foundation of the transnational constitutional order. (Backer, Larry Catá, "From Constitution to Constitutionalism: A Global Framework for Legitimate Public Power Systems," Penn State Law Review 113(3) 2009).
(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)
Chinese academics do as well. One of the most interesting thing about rule of law in China is that, like its counterparts in Western Europe and the United States, the term has undergone some substantial changes over the course of the years. More interesting still, and again in a way that mirrors difficulties with the concept in the West, the term can have simultaneous multiple meanings. (E.g., Deborah Cao, "Fazhi Versus/and/Or Rule of Law?: A Semiotic Venture into Chinese Law," International Journal for the Semiotics of Law 14:223-247 (2001); and generally Deborah Cao, Chinese Law: A Language Perspective (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004)).
The protean nature of rule of law has been explored in recent years for English language audiences. (See, e.g., Yuanyuan Shen, "Understanding the Complexity of Law Reform in China," in The limits of the rule of law in China 20-44 (Karen Turner-Gottschang, James Vincent Feinerman, R. Kent Guy, eds., University of Washington Press, 2000) ("Literally fazhi 法制 means 'laws and institutions' or the 'legal system.' But the same spelling in pinyin can refer to fazhi 法治, 'to use law to rule.' Ibid, 24). One of my students, Shan Gao, has produced a short essay on some of the more interesting aspects of the term and its use in China. What emerges from this brief reminder of the ambiguity of meaning and its political dimension, especially in the context of great ideological struggles among great powers, is both the importance of context and of history in the development of a concept that itself is a place holder for complex relationships between institutional power, political power and the individual.