Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date




Most recent Western popular and scholarly writing on legal reform in China has focused on two apparently contradictory trends. Since coming to power in 2012 China's new leadership has significantly curtailed the limits of permissible legal activism, highlighted most clearly by the detention and prosecution of numerous leading lawyers and academics. The Party-state has also increased oversight and control over legal education and has explicitly rejected the relevance of Western models of legality for China, including concepts such as judicial independence. At the same time, China's leadership has announced some of the most significant legal reforms in decades, in particular in the courts, and has staked its future legitimacy on its ability to fight corruption and to “govern the nation according to law” (Decision of the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth CCP Central Committee 2013, IX). The Decision issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party following its Fourth Plenum in October 2014 reflects this tension, providing an extensive roadmap for reform while at the same time reaffirming political control over the legal system. The repeated emphasis on Party oversight in both the Communiqué issued immediately following the Plenum and in the more detailed Plenum Decision (Decision of the Fourth Plenary Session of the Eighteenth CCP Central Committee 2014, hereinafter “Plenum Decision”) has led many to question whether China's leadership is serious about legal reform and whether significant reforms are possible given the political confines in which China's legal system, and in particular China's courts, exist.

Far less attention has been devoted to another emerging trend: the attempt to define a Chinese Model of legal development. Although officials and scholars in China have long written of China's efforts to construct a “socialist rule of law system,” in the past most such writings were aimed at explaining why the Chinese legal system needed more time to develop or why China did not conform to or accept liberal Western paradigms. Serious scholarly (or official) efforts at defining the uniqueness of China's approach to legal development or at identifying specific characteristics of China's approach were rare. In contrast, a number of recent scholarly efforts have sought to identify distinctive aspects of China's approach to legal development, particularly in the courts and dispute resolution.


Comparative and Foreign Law | Law


This material has been published in "The Beijing Consensus?: How China Has Changed Western Ideas of Law and Economic Development", edited by Weitseng Chen. This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution or re-use.