The accession of Deng Xiaoping to leadership in China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1978 provided the impetus for the revival of China’s legal system. That commitment to build a rule of law has contributed to China’s current phenomenal growth. More recently, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization required a commitment to transparency in the lawmaking process, procedures for challenging administrative action, and judicial independence. This article will attempt to assess the progress of a part of that project: the creation, virtually from scratch, of a trained legal profession over the past thirty years.
The Western notion of enforcing one’s legal rights through litigation does not sit well with the Chinese. Not only is the concept of a legal right a foreign concept, but the pursuit of self-interest through adverse litigation is at odds with the paramount virtue of social harmony. It is difficult for the average Chinese person to conceive of a court as other than a place where bad people go or where bad things happen to people at the hands of government. The topdown view of law as an instrument of government with citizens as the objects of legal regulation remains influential in China today. Courts generally do not welcome litigation and often try to discourage it. Far more than in many other systems, the Chinese legal system is willing to forgo the enforcement of rights when other pressing values seem to be at stake, to the point where it might be more accurate to say that the system recognizes interests more than rights. . . .