Saturday, February 27, 2016

Jean Mittelstaedt on Jerome A. Cohen, “A Looming Crisis for China’s Legal System: Talented Judges and Lawyers are Leaving the Profession, as Ideology Continues to Trump the Rule of Law”

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

Issues of democratic legitimacy of the Chinese political, constitutional. legal and economic order are fairly common in the West. Indeed there are legislative institutions in the U.S. Congress whose sole business is the production of such critique (e.g., the U.S. Congressional-Executive commission on China).

But there are differences in the way one can go about making those critiques, each of which might produce substantially distinct insights. In the West, for example, it is common to apply what I call the outside-in approach. That starts from the set of premises extracted from global consensus or the reading of democratic traditions among influential states, and then projects those into China, comparing how the Chinese approach stacks up against these outside models. A less common approach, but one sometimes used by comparative scholars is what I call the inside-out approach. This starts by a rigorous examination of the system to be examined, both the theory and practice of governance, and then projects those out against a set of foreign markers. The outside-in approach tends to reveal more about the foreign system projected inward and the extent of global harmonization, along with the character of that harmonization. The inside-out tends to provide greater insight into the working of the system examined and the extent to which the gaps between theory and implementation reveal weakness, including coherence in form or function that might be advanced through a study of foreign systems.

Jerome Cohen, Professor of Law at New York University, one of the great scholars of China in the United States, has recently produced a marvelous essay that for me highlights what may be some effects that follow the choice of methodology (Jerome A. Cohen, “A Looming Crisis for China’s Legal System: Talented Judges and Lawyers are Leaving the Profession, as Ideology Continues to Trump the Rule of Law,Foreign Policy (February 22, 2016)). The essay provides a powerful consideration of the consequences of the current Chinese approach to legal reform and its suggestion of the underlying structural deficiencies of the current normative Chinese political order. These judgments are made against an application of the standards of universal legal values which China has endorsed. The essay suggests the value of an outside-in approach. But it also exposes the possibilities for a distinctive approach and another potentially rich vein of analysis using an inside-out approach.

It is in this light that Flora Sapio, Jean Mittelstaedt, Shaoming Zhou, Sun Yuhua, Jade White, and I thought it might be useful to consider Professor Cohen's excellent article. To that end each of us prepared a short engagement with distinct sets of insights developed by Professor Cohen (Introduction here).

The responses may be accessed here, along with a Chinese language summary of the comments:
Part I: Larry Catá Backer
Part II: Flora Sapio
Part III: Jean Mittelstaedt
Part IV: Shaoming Zhou
Part V: 中外学者中国法治改革的关注与讨论.
Part VI Sun Yuhua
Part VII White Jade; (English Version HERE)
This post includes Jean Mittelstaedt's response.

A reply to Jerome A. Cohen

In his essay titled “A Looming Crisis for China’s Legal System,” Jerome A. Cohen paints a bleak picture of the Chinese legal system. The courts “are full of corruption” and “political interference is pronounced.” However, “there is discreet, if passive, resistance.” According to Cohen, legal professionals want to “inhabit a real legal system,” thus taking “legal reforms seriously”. While this dichotomy between legal professionals and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to some extent a dim reality, I take issue with Cohen’s underlying assumption that the principle aim of a legal system is to be neutral and independent. While laudable, this entry point clouds an assessment of where the legal system is moving because it neglects the fundamental role of the political power organizing it: the CCP.

The legal system does not operate in a vacuum. When starting an analysis from the legal system, it is necessary to locate its place within the Chinese polity. Cohen acknowledges this when he writes, “politics continues to control law”. However, this control is rooted deeper than he acknowledges. If politics indeed controls law then how is law understood? Fa 法 has traditionally been an instrument of governance disconnected from a concept of “rights”.[1] As an instrument of governance, law and the legal system have to be judged against the self-professed aims of the CCP: the promotion of economic wealth and social stability.

The aim of economic wealth is set forth in the Preamble of the Constitution as well as in the general program of the Party Constitution. Within Xi Jinping’s “Four Comprehensives,” strictly ruling the Party, governing the nation according to law and deepening reform all serve the construction a moderately prosperous society (小康社会).[2] The plan for the establishment of a rule of law government (2015-2020) published in January 2016 highlights the importance of promoting rule of law development for achieving the two aims of “two one hundred years” and the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.[3] In February 2016, the President of the Supreme People's Court, Party Secretary and Chief Justice Zhou Qiang writes that courts should internalize the five big development principles to make a positive contribution to the socio-economic development and the realization of the 13th five-year plan.[4] Another recent example is the Notice of the Supreme People’s Court to lower level courts to support the One Belt, One Road initiative.[5] The Court subsequently published another Notice stressing the political side of ruling and the necessity to engage in studying the Party Statute.[6] These Notices did not just showcase the organizational dominance of the CCP, but also invariably led to a relative change of priorities, thus shifting the basis of what good judgment means.

The examples given are not outliers but represent the norm in policy documents and official discourse. What they show is that the standard against which the legal system should be judged are not abstract concepts such as judicial independence or human rights but rather its effectiveness as an instrument to provide legal support for the CCP’s policies.

Social stability is a task the Political and Legal Affairs Committee has taken up. In 2014, Wang Yongqing, the Secretary General of the Central PLAC, argued that rule of law thinking means understanding how to balance powers.[7] This thinking is constructive and acts according to procedure while simultaneously maintaining justice and neutrality. In a speech at a meeting of the Central PLAC, Meng Jianzhu, member of the Politburo and the Secretary of the Central PLAC stressed the crucial role of the PLAC in standardizing the relationships between judges, procurators, lawyers and the police[8].[9] Similarly, analyzing Xi Jinping’s speeches and writings, Qiu Shuiping concludes that Xi’s thinking on the role and mission of the PLAC can be boiled down to “five factors to focus on more” (五个更加注重), including just law enforcement thinking, construction of law enforcement, publication and information campaigns to foster public trust,[10] reinforcing the responsibility to enforce the law, and the establishment of a good environment for this enforcement. Quoting Xi Jinping, he emphasizes that the “life line” (生命线) of the PLAC is to be fair and just.[11]

Hence, the PLAC’s task is to mitigate social conflicts while balancing different interests,[12] rather than intervening in individual cases.[13] As such, it has to create a favorable environment.[14] This means that justice does not flow from a strict interpretation of the law rather than being a constructed synthesis of different influences and interests. Examining stability preservation in a Chinese county, Yan Xiaojun of the University of Hong Kong notes that the Secretary of the local PLAC is in charge of the effort to pre-empt threats to socio-political stability.[15] Yan further points out that in higher developed counties the process of dispersion is highly institutionalized and bureaucratized. In this, social justice is pitted against justice by law,[16] which is in the service of social and political stability.[17]

Given the deep subordination of law to politics, what role is given to lawyers? The theoretical exemplification of this leadership in the legal area finds its evidence in the Fourth Plenum’s communiqué on the rule of law from 2014. On the role of law professionals, the Party wants to “develop a contingent of professionals devoted to the socialist rule of law and loyal to the Party, the country, the people, and the law.”[18] The Deputy Minister of Justice, Zhao Dacheng, notes that the position and role of a lawyer is to mediate conflicts in society and protect stability.[19] A judicial research task group at the Ministry of Justice suggests basing the assessment of lawyers in their ability to create “positive energy” (正能量).[20] “Positive energy” is a composite of three quantifiable factors: (1) discourse consensus (舆论共识); (2) degree of government recognition (政府认可度); and (3) degree of discourse rationality (舆论理性度).[21]

In practice, this means that legal scholarship is constrained by control of teaching assignments and limits to publications that exist on the university level, but also through Party influence on legal training in universities,[22] unified exam procedures,[23] and political rituals.[24] The Fourth Plenum has put education of the rule of law for citizens on the agenda.[25] This especially pertains to the construction of a law culture.[26] An example for the intimate connection between education, Party, and the courts is the cooperation between the Fourth Intermediate Court in Beijing and the Political and Legal Studies University on the role and tasks of lawyers.[27]

Hence, rather than focusing solely on legal institutions, the oppression lawyers face from the state or government interference into cases, it is perhaps of even greater value to understand this system from within the confines of the aims of the CCP. Law is not all-powerful but on par with other instruments such as ideological education, Party building or economic reform. Thus, the Chinese legal system must be understood holistically as inseparable from the aim of achieving a moderately prosperous society and the CCP’s political, ideological and organizational leadership that is outlined in the CCP’s Constitution. As the promulgation of norms, this leadership encroaches on the whole of society through the strengthened built-up of grassroots Party organizations, ideology and education, while being politically set into stone within the Constitution.


Biddulph, Sarah. 2015. The Stability Imperative: Human Rights and Law in China. Toronto: UBCPress.

Cai, Xia. 2013. "Tuijin xianzheng minzhu guanjian zai dang zhengjie ye zai dang 推进宪政民主关键在党症结也在党 [Promoting the Constitutional Democratization is crucial for the Party, Risk also lies with the Party]." Gongshi Wang 共识网 [Consensus Net], Last Modified 20 June 2013 Accessed 5 February 2016.

CCP Central Committee. 2015. ""Guanyu wanshan guojia tongyi lüshi zhiye zige zhidu de yijian" yinfa《关于完善国家统一法律职业资格制度的意见》印发 ["Opinion concerning perfecting the standardization of the national qualifications system for the lawyer profession" for print and distribution]." Xinhua 新华, Last Modified 20 December 2015 Accessed 27 December 2015.

Changanjian 长安剑. 2016. "Meng Jianzhu: wo conmei pishi ganyu guo renhe yige ge'an 孟建柱:我从没批示干预过任何一个个案 [Meng Jianzhu: I have never ordered to intervene in any individual case]." Sina 新浪, Last Modified 9 January 2016 Accessed 13 January 2016.

Chen, Feng, and Xin Xu. 2012. ""Active Judiciary": Judicial Dismantling of Workers' Collective Action In China." The China Journal (67):87-108.

China Chang'an Net 中国长安网. 2015. "Meng Jianzhu: buduan tisheng shehui zhili xiaoneng he fuwu qunzhong shuiping 孟建柱:不断提升社会治理效能和服务群众水平 [Meng Jianzhu: continuously promoting the efficiency of social governance and the level of serving the masses]." Zhongguo Chang'an wang 中国长安网 [China Chang'an Net], Last Modified 19 November 2015 Accessed 21 November 2015.

China Daily. 2016. "Court gets B+ for the past year's legal work." China Daily, Last Modified 14 January 2016 Accessed 14 January 2016.

China Economic Net. 2015. "Beijing sizhongyuan yu zhongguo zhengfa daxue fazhi zhengfu yanjiuyuan tansuo fazhi zhengfu xietong chuangxin fangshi 北京四中院与中国政法大学法治政府研究院探索法治政府协同创新方式 [The Beijing Fourth Intermediate Court and the Rule of Law Government Research Department of the China Political and Legal Studies University cooperate in looking for innovative methods for Rule of Law Government]." Zhongguo jingji wang 中国经济网 [China Economic Net], Last Modified 29 October 2015 Accessed 30 October 2015.

Compilation and Translation Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. 2014. "Communique of the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.", Last Modified 2 December 2014 Accessed 26 February 2016.

Finder, Susan. 2015. "Supreme People’s Court and “One Belt One Road”." Supreme People's Court Monitor, Last Modified 14 July 2015 Accessed 25 October 2015.

Justice Department Judicial Research Task Group 司法部司法研究所课题组. 2015. "Lüshi zhiye shuiping pingjia tixi yanjiu 律师职业水平评价体系研究 [Research on the assessment system of the lawyer profession]." Justice of China 中国司法 (9):39-43.

Legal Daily. 2015a. "Jiaqiang sifa gongxinli jianshe weihu gongping zhengyi 加强司法公信力建设维护公平正义 [Strengthening the construction of public trust in the judiciary protects equality and justice]." Fazhi ribao 法制日报 [Legal Daily], Last Modified 5 December 2015 Accessed 29 December 2015.

Legal Daily. 2015b. "Xingfa zhixing jiandu gongzuo qude xin chengji 刑罚执行监督工作取得新成绩 [New achievements made in the supervision over the execution of punishment]." Fazhi ribao 法制日报 [Legal Daily], Last Modified 2 November 2015 Accessed 3 November 2015.

Liang, Zhiping. 1989. "Explicating "Law": A Comparative Perspective of Chinese and Western Legal Culture." Journal of Chinese Law 55:55-91.

Meng, Jianzhu. 2015. "Jianchi yi fazhi wei yinling tigao zhenfa jiguan fuwu daju de nengli he shuiping 坚持以法治为引领 提高政法机关服务大局的能力和水平 [Maintaining rule of law as guidance, improving the Political and Legal Affairs agency's service capacity and standards situation]." Qiushi xuekan 求是学刊 [Seeking Truth] (6).

Ministry of Education, and Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee. 2011. "Jiaoyu bu zhongyang zhengfa weiyuanhui guanyu shishi zhuoyue falü rencai jiaoyu peiyang jihua de ruogan yijian 教育部 中央政法委员会关于实施卓越法律人才教育培养计划的若干意见 [Ministry of Education Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee: Several Opinions on the Implementation of Education and Training Plan of talented People in Law]." Ministry of Education 教育部, Last Modified 23 December 2011 Accessed 29 October 2015.

Ministry of Education, Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee, Supreme People's Court, Supreme People's Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Justice. 2013. "Jiaoyu bu zhongyang zhengfa weiyuanhui zuigao renmin fayuan zuigao renmin jianchayuan gong'an bu sifa bu: guanyu shishi gaodeng xuexiao yu falü shiwu bumen renyuan hupin "shuangqian jihua" de tongzhi 教育部 中央政法委员会 最高人民法院 最高人民检察院 公安部 司法部 关于实施高等学校与法律实务部门人员互聘“双千计划”的通知 [Ministry of Education Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee Supreme People's Court Supreme People's Procuratorate Ministry of Public Security Ministry of Justice: Notice on the Implementation of Higher Education and Legal Practice Department's mutual hiring "Double one thousand Plan"]." Ministry of Education 教育部, Last Modified 19 July 2013 Accessed 28 October 2015.

People's Daily. 2015. "Dangbao tan guojia sifa kaoshi: yi kaoshi gaige tixian fazhi lunli 党报谈国家司法考试:以考试改革体现法治伦理 [Party Paper discussing the national legal exam: representing rule of law ethics through exam reform]." Souhu 搜狐, Last Modified 23 December 2015 Accessed 29 December 2015.

Qiu, Shuiping. 2014. "Jianchi zhenfa gongzuo de shengmingxian - xuexi guanche Xi Jinping zong shuju zai zhongyang zhengfa gongzuo huiyi shang de zhongyao jianghua jingshen 坚守政法工作的生命线——学习贯彻习近平总书记在中央政法工作会议上的重要讲话精神 [Upholding the lifeline of political and legal affairs work - studying how to implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping's important speech at the central political and legal affairs work meeting] " Qiushi xuekan 求是学刊 [Seeking Truth] (11).

Renmin ribao 人民日报 [People's Daily]. 2016. "Xingwen zhi yuanzhan hongtu (zhiguo lizheng xin shijian) - cong quanmian yifa zhiguo kan xietiao tuijin "sige quanmian" zhanlüe buju 行稳致远展宏图(治国理政新实践)——从全面依法治国看协调推进“四个全面”战略布局 [Macroplan for maintaining long-term stability and development (the new practice of governing) - looking at the coordinated promotion of the "four comprehensives" strategy from governing the nation according to law]." Renmin ribao 人民日报 [People's Daily], Last Modified 23 February 2016 Accessed 26 February 2016.

Renmin wang 人民网 [People's Net]. 2016. ""shibada yilai falü gongtongti yulun shengtai jianshe baogao" fabu《十八大以来法律共同体舆论生态建设报告》发布 [Release of "Report on the establishment of a discursive ecology for the law community since the 18th National Congress of the CCP"]." Renmin wang 人民网 [People's Net], Last Modified 20 February 2016 Accessed 22 February 2016.

Supreme People's Court. 2015. Zui gao renmin fayuan guanyu yinfa "2015-2019 nian quanguo fayuan jiaoyu peixun guihua" de tongzhi 最高人民法院关于印发《2015-2019年全国法院教育培训规划》的通知 [Notice of the Supreme People's Court on Issuing the Plan for Education and Training for Courts across the Country (2015 - 2019)].

Wang, Yongqing. 2014a. "Fazhi siwei jiqi yangcheng 法治思维及其养成 [Rule of law thinking and its fostering]." Qiushi xuekan 求是学刊 [Seeking Truth] (12).

Wang, Yuhua. 2014b. "Empowering the Police: How the Chinese Communist Party Manages Its Coercive Leaders." The China Quarterly 219:625-648.

Xinhua. 2015a. "Ba fazhi jiaoyu naru guomin jiaoyu tixi 把法治教育纳入国民教育体系 [Including rule of law education in the citizen's education system]." Xinhua 新华, Last Modified 27 July 2015 Accessed 22 January 2016.

Xinhua. 2015b. "China to reform legal profession qualification system." Xinhua, Last Modified 20 December 2015 Accessed 27 December 2015.

Xinhua. 2015c. "Zhonggong zhongyang guowuyuan yinfa "fazhi zhengfu jianshe shishi gangyao (2015-2020)" 中共中央 国务院印发《法治政府建设实施纲要(2015-2020年)》[Central Committee of the CCP and the State Council publish the "Rule of Law Government Implementation Plan (2015-2020)"]." Xinhua, Last Modified 27 December 2015 Accessed 26 February 2016.

Xu, Xin. 2015. "Lüshi zhidu gaige, buguo shi lüshi guanli buduan qianghua 律师制度改革,不过是律师管理不断强化 [The reform of the lawyer profession is a continuous strengthening of the management of lawyers]." Gongshi Wang 共识网 [Consensus Net], Last Modified 17 November 2015 Accessed 10 January 2016.

Yan, Xiaojun. 2014. "Engineering Stability: Authoritarian Political Control over University Students in Post-Deng China." The China Quarterly 218:493-513.

Yan, Xiaojun. 2016. "Patrolling Harmony: pre-emptive authoritarianism and the preservation of stability in W County." Journal of Contemporary China. doi: 10.1080/10670564.2015.1104903.

Zhang, Xiaolian. 2015. "Dali jianshe shehuizhuyi fazhi wenhua 大力建设社会主义法治文化 [Vigorously constructing socialist rule of law culture]." Qiushi xuekan 求是学刊 [Seeking Truth] (9).

Zhao, Dacheng. 2015. "Jianshe wanbei de zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi lüshi fuwu tixi 建设完备的中国特色社会主义律师服务体系 [Constructing a perfect lawyer service system with Chinese socialist characteristics]." Qiushi xuekan 求是学刊 [Seeking Truth] (4).

Zhou, Qiang. 2016. "牢固树立五大发展理念 大力弘扬改革创新精神 为实现“十三五”规划目标营造良好法治环境." Qiushi xuekan 求是学刊 [Seeking Truth], Last Modified 15 February 2016 Accessed 26 February 2016.


[1] (Liang 1989)

[2] (Renmin ribao 人民日报 [People's Daily] 2016)

[3] (Xinhua 2015c)

[4] (Zhou 2016)

[5] (Finder 2015)

[6] (Supreme People's Court 2015)

Chen and Xu point out that the problem essentially is the balancing between judicial professionalism (commitment to laws) and political goals (harmony). The difficulty is that the distinction is often not clear. See (Chen and Xu 2012)

[7] (Wang 2014a) Cai Xia argues that “democracy,” “rule of law” and “constitutionalism” are important methods for easing up conflicts. The CCP must prove its adaptability through embracing them. See (Cai 2013)

[8] The co-option of the police means that up to 90% of public security chiefs were being incorporated into leadership teams, rendering them more loyal to the Party. See (Wang 2014b)

[9] (Meng 2015)

[10] See also (Legal Daily 2015a)

[11] (Qiu 2014)

[12] Indeed, the Legal Daily notes that the Supreme People’s Court has thoroughly implemented the Notice given by the Central PLAC concerning the commutation of temporary parole sentences and preventing corruption in the judiciary. See (Legal Daily 2015b)

[13] (Changanjian 长安剑 2016)

[14] (China Chang'an Net 中国长安网 2015)

[15] (Yan 2016)

[16] It is particularly telling that the assessment standard for a court is to bridge the gap between legal work and public feelings. See (China Daily 2016)

[17] (Biddulph 2015, 238)

[18] (Compilation and Translation Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China 2014)

[19] (Zhao 2015) Indeed, Xu Xin argues that the reform will strengthen control over lawyers. See (Xu 2015)

[20] (Justice Department Judicial Research Task Group 司法部司法研究所课题组 2015)

[21] (Renmin wang 人民网 [People's Net] 2016)

[22] This is based on official policies from 2011 and 2013: (Ministry of Education and Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee 2011, Ministry of Education et al. 2013)

[23] (CCP Central Committee 2015)

The People’s Daily points out that part of the reason is to enhance lawyer’s morality. See (People's Daily 2015) See also (Xinhua 2015b)

[24] (Yan 2014)

[25] (Xinhua 2015a)

[26] Zhang Xiaolian argued that the establishment of a law culture is the basic guarantee of the construction of the rule of law. Just when the rule of law becomes part of the way of living as an unconscious restriction, just then will rule of law be interiorized and be effective. See (Zhang 2015)

[27] (China Economic Net 2015)


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