Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

PBS documentary (and other documentaries) on China's legal system

Circuitcourt_2 On July 3rd, PBS will be airing a documentary on the Chinese legal system entitled "The People's Court: China's Legal  Revolution" as part of its Wide Angle series. I haven't seen it, but it sounds very interesting. I'm reproducing the press release below; for more information, check out the Wide Angle web site.

Incidentally, I can think offhand of only two other documentaries that have material relevant to the Chinese legal system: China: Beyond the Clouds and China From the Inside. If readers know of more, please tell me about them in the comments. (Note that, as always, as an anti-spam measure your comment won't appear until I've viewed it and clicked "publish".)

* June 21st addendum: A reader has e-mailed me about another documentary, Shanghai Vice (7 parts), produced either in 1993 or 1999 (the sources are in conflict). More info here and here.

Press release:


WIDE ANGLE Launches Its Sixth Season Tuesday, July 3 at 9 p.m.

When a state judge brings her mobile court to a hillside village
to resolve its first lawsuit, the entire community shows up for the
public spectacle.  When a crusading lawyer risks government retribution
to defend farmers rioting against a massive dam project, a teenager is
tried and executed in secret.

It may be the court of "the people," but it's a long,
long way from Judge Wapner's California courtroom.
As WIDE ANGLE returns for its sixth season of in-depth
documentaries about issues that are shaping the world today, The
People's Court takes viewers inside the courtrooms and law schools of
China to provide an unprecedented and unexpected portrait of its rapidly
growing legal system.  The People's Court premieres Tuesday, July 3 at 9
p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

Poised to surpass the United States as the largest economy in
the world, yet facing mounting domestic and international pressure for a
fair and transparent framework of laws, China is racing to reshape the
rules of society.  With Chinese from all walks of life taking to the
streets in record numbers (official figures count an average of 200
incidents of unrest a day) to protest land seizures, corruption,
pollution, or unpaid wages, China is under duress to provide a release
valve for mounting social discontents.  "Rule of law," originally a
Western concept, was recently adopted in China's Constitution for the
first time ever, and legal reform is high on the state agenda, despite
the Communist Party's continuing monopoly on power. Above all, a market
economy requires a reliable framework of property rights, without which
international investors cannot do business with China. 

In the past quarter century, the country has opened nearly 400
law schools, trained hundreds of thousands of judges and lawyers, and
launched education campaigns to encourage people to bring their
grievances to court rather than taking to the streets.  Few nations have
ever attempted to create a new legal system so quickly. 
Yet the transformation is incomplete and the judiciary far from
independent. Senior judges are appointed by, take orders from, and
receive their paychecks from the Communist Party.  Hundreds of Chinese
lawyers have been jailed in recent years for challenging state
leadership or taking on overly sensitive cases. More than 99 percent of
criminal cases end in convictions.  And China executes more prisoners
every year than the rest of the world combined.  The People's Court
reports the shocking story of the recent secret trial and execution of
one of the 100,000 peasants who protested the loss of their land to a
huge hydroelectric dam project on the Dadu River. 

WIDE ANGLE was given exclusive access to film in Chinese courts
- a first for a Western documentary.  Profiling itinerant judges, law
students, a human rights lawyer, and ordinary citizens, The People's
Court examines China in flux, revealing the lengths to which Chinese
people must go to obtain justice and raising crucial questions about
their present system of law:  Is it possible to get a fair trial in
China today?  Will the "rule of law" transform Chinese society into one
that protects the legal rights of all citizens?

After the film, WIDE ANGLE anchor Daljit Dhaliwal will conduct
an interview with a foreign policy expert to examine the global
implications of China's legal reforms and connect the dots for American

For additional information and photography, visit
<>  or
<> .

Major funding for WIDE ANGLE is provided by PBS, The
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Mutual
of America Life Insurance Company, The John D. and Catherine T.
MacArthur Foundation, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation, The
Jacob Burns Foundation, Josh and Judy Weston, Rosalind P. Walter, and
The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. 

WIDE ANGLE is a production of Thirteen/WNET New York for PBS.
Stephen Segaller is executive producer.  Pamela Hogan is series
producer.  Andy Halper is senior producer.  The People's Court was
directed by Bruno Sorrentino and produced by Maggie Still of Xanadu

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I have used China in the Red for my Chinese Law course, and it was well-received by students. Other films which I have heard about but have not seen are China Blue and MardiGras. IMHO China From the Inside is very long and of uneven quality.

Posted by: Hilary K. Josephs | Jun 22, 2007 11:00:08 AM

There is a rather dated, but quite effective installment from a PBS documentary series entitled "Heart of the Dragon." The specific episode I use in my comparative criminal procedure class is called "Correcting." It's old enough that it may be impossible to purchase, but I know it's available through interlibrary loan. The episode follows what we would call a burglary case in which the defendant, a young woman, is tried for the offense. Conversations with the defense counsel and investigation undertaken by the court are shown. The lay assessor system was still in use when the film was made, but it's a very helpful look at the legal and social culture of China during a period of transition from the Cultural Revolution to a more open society -- a bridge period to the recent reforms. Fascinating for American law students, I recommend it highly.

Posted by: Geary Reamey | Jun 30, 2007 8:37:42 AM

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