Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Amnesty International report on crackdown on lawyers

AI has issued a report on China's crackdown on lawyers; available in English and Chinese here.

June 30, 2011 in Commentary, News - Chinese Law | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fu Hualing on "The Varieties of Law"

Fhl1 Professor FU Hualing of the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Law has recently written a very interesting meditation on the varieties of law in China. He has kindly permitted me to post it here.

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The Varieties of Law

Fu Hualing

The University of Hong Kong

It is well known that the Chinese government’s budgetary process is a messy one. The concept of a “budget” in China includes: a formal and legal budget; an official but quasi-legal extra-budget; and an informal, occasionally illegal, extra-extra budget. The government budget is thus a complex mix of budgets of various sources and degrees of legality and legitimacy.

As with China’s government budget, Chinese law also comes in different varieties. There is the official/formal law made pursuant to the constitution and, in the shadow of the official law, there is quasi-formal extra-law with questionable legality and constitutionality. Parallel to law and extra-law, one also finds an increasingly visible layer of informal “extra-extra law,” which is developing a life of its own.


Law is defined here as a constitutional legal regime in which properly constituted authorities make and state legal norms (in a legal format) which are subsequently applied fairly by independent tribunals. There is a credible process of legal representation and judicial deliberation and a degree of transparency, and external accountability throughout the decision-making process.

China has been building a legal order based on law since the late 1970s and the achievement is very visible. There is, for instance, a comprehensive legal framework, in the formalistic sense at least, governing commercial transactions. A more developed legal system can be found in ordinary civil justice in dealing with a wide range of issues, such as family law and small tort claims. Chinese public law has also witnessed a gradual but significant development in enhancing regularity, transparency and juridification. Even in criminal law which is traditionally police-centric and highly politicized, there is a tendency toward increasing certainty, more effective judicial oversight, and stronger legal representation. Building a legal order is a long process and China has experienced its due share of setback and frustration in the process. But the larger trend had been clear: until recently, the sphere of law had been expanding, reaching out to and occupying more fields. The legal system had been used, and through the daily usage, strengthened and improved. The government, until recent years, had been encouraging legalization of social-economic life and trying to bring social problems to a legal resolution.


An extra-law is a system in which power is neither directly derived from properly constituted authorities nor subject to independent oversight (judicial or otherwise). In contrast with law, extra-law does not allow deliberation, representation and decision-making that can be regarded as judicial. It has a strong political or policy orientation and the whole system is geared to political expediency or convenience.

China’s legal reform in the past 30 years is characterized by a slow transition from extra-law to law. Yet, after 30 years of law reform and improved legality, the size of extra-law still looms large, especially in core policy areas, such as criminal law and public law.

Examples of extra-law abound. The first example is criminal law. A significant proportion of criminal justice matters are still governed by extra-law. There has been a large gray area when it comes to police powers to punish. Due to ideological commitment and historical legacy, criminal law punishes only “serious offences”, leaving “minor offences” to the prerogatives of the police. While approximately 100,000 criminal cases go through the criminal justice process each year, millions of offenses of different severity and nature are dealt with administratively by the police under the name of punishment, treatment, or rehabilitation. The hodgepodge of administrative penalties targets prostitutes, drug addicts, and a wide range of minor offenders, and the penalties may vary from a verbal warning to three years’ incarceration (in the form of laojiao/Re-education-Through-Labor). This administrative punishment regime is characterized by relative severity in penalty, lack of representation and due process, and uncertain legislative authorization.

The second example is anti-corruption enforcement. Further away from law, the in-house disciplinary mechanism of the Communist Party of China (the Party) for its members openly challenges China’s legal foundations. The Party’s disciplinary mechanism was initially designed to investigate and punish Party members for their misbehavior, but it has morphed into a powerful anti-corruption institution. Legal institutions are officially made subsidiary and accountable to this political mechanism. The disciplinary detention measure, shuanggui, which allows the Party to detain its members for interrogation, is particularly questionable and lies within the extra-extra law zone. While the Administrative Supervision Law of the People’s Republic of China appears to permit shuanggui (by ironically permitting “voluntary” detention), it can never be stretched to justify the extensive detention as practiced in the shuanggui system.

A final example is media governance. Media governance is essentially a lawless business in China. Traditional media is totally state-owned and controlled tightly by the Party. There is a well-established political mechanism, armed with strong organizations and detailed procedures, to guide and manage all media outlets in China on an on-going basis. Media governance is particularly an area in which Party norms and organs, instead of legal rules and institutions, are the ultimate authorities in the running of the media.

Extra-Extra Law

Extra-extra law comprises government measures that exist in some dark space, seemingly unrelated to any legal framework and devoid of any legal authority. Extra-extra law is an informal political institution characterized by a total lack of legality. It is used to advance some predatory and repressive government policies which cannot be justified by any law or extra-law. As such, extra-extra law is covered in secrecy and operates with no legal accountability. Except occasional and indirect admissions, such as the quasi-official admission of the existence of “black jails” for petitioners, extra-extra law does not officially exist, and, as such, extra-extra law survives and thrives because it is effective in achieving certain policy goals which cannot otherwise be achieved through law or extra-law. The legal system is regarded as weak and ineffective when it comes to sensitive issues. In these situations, intimidation through extra-extra law becomes expedient and even indispensible.

Again, examples abound. In the countryside, local governments are known to collect illicit fees and levies and have operated “black jails” (in the name of “study classes”) to detain and incarcerate peasants who are defiant. “Black jails” are also used to detain peasants in violation of family planning policies; to detain and intimidate petitioners who air their grievances in Beijing; and, more recently, to detain Tibetan monks for their alleged challenges of the official policy on religions. These repressive policies are extra-extra law because powers are exercised by the government on an ad hoc basis without any legal authorization or procedure, and little accountability.

The recent enforced disappearance of human rights lawyers illustrates law’s vulnerability and the readiness of the Party to resort to extra-extra law. Lawyers were typically snatched by internal security authorities in plain clothes, and detained in unknown places where they were interrogated for an extended period of time. They reappeared as quietly as they disappeared. Forced disappearance took place mainly in Beijing and was inflicted on lawyers who had represented clients in cases which were regarded as politically sensitive.

There is a fundamental difference between disappearance (extra-extra law) and abuse of criminal procedure (law). When the government uses, or even abuses the law, it still signals a commitment to law and a degree of fidelity to legal rules. There is also a degree of legal accountability and responsibility. That explains why human rights lawyers and others who were kidnapped may have demanded their day in court – so that abuses could be brought to the attention of the law and public scrutiny. A mere legal trapping may not be sufficient to convert a political persecution to a fair legal process, but it is a necessary first step in developing  a rule of law.

Legal rhetoric is important in both justifying and constraining state powers. It may not be possible to reduce law to total irrelevance without incurring a cost. Think about the judicial interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) on the application of sedition and subversion to the 1989 democratic movement activists; think about the legal trappings that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and the SPC painstakingly created to justify its prosecution of the Falun Gong (FLG), and think about the courtroom tension between judges and lawyers in some of the FLG trials. The mere fact that a criminal charge is laid necessarily means a degree of accountability. The path of law is a tortuous one, but as long as we have confidence that we are walking on that path, there is some degree of control and accountability, hence hope.

Extra-extra law also serves a fundamentally different objective. Enforced disappearance differs from criminal punishment in fundamental ways. In criminal punishment, the law targets past offences that an individual may have committed and the objective is to punish. In enforced disappearance, the focus is instead on the “risk” of an individual to the Party-state, regardless of what offences she or he may or may not have committed. Extra-extra law is thus applied here not for the purpose of punishing past offences, but to reduce future risk, with measures taking against individuals according to the specific personal profile to maximize intimidation.

Torture may also be used in both law and extra-extra law. But in law, torture is typically used to extract confession to establish criminal liability; while in extra-extra law, it is to inflict fear so that lawyers and others would not speak or act out. Intimidation is at the core of the extra-extra law. As such, in the enforced disappearance cases, no general norms apply; instead, there is only particularistic stratagem, tailor-made for a particular individual case. With intimidation at the center of the equation, we see a quantitative change of the method of repression.

The recent repressive episode may be surgical and limited in its scope of application and in the degree of brutality. But these may not be the core issues. The core questions are: is China moving towards a different doctrine of governance in the name of the ‘Chinese model’ where legal constraints are regarded as redundant and ineffective, and power is unconstrained in achieving its objectives? Is there a bottom line that must be maintained? What happens if the lawyers/activists cannot be silenced through enforced disappearance, and the intimidation backfires and generates more resistance? There is the ominous early sign that the state is willing to resort to the ancient concept of collective responsibilities in maximizing intimidation, so that pressures are brought to bear on spouses, parents, children, friends, colleagues, and even landlords to achieve the objectives. But a lingering question is: what’s next and how far an authoritarian state can go in silencing dissenting voices? There is no need to refer to the massive enforced disappearance cases in Argentina decades ago. Taiwan offered a vivid illustration of downward spirals toward extra-extra law — the Guomindang regime resorted to political assassination before its monopoly on power ended.


Repressive episodes are recurring events in the post-Mao era, and each generation of leaders have their repressive moments during their terms, especially towards the end of their terms when they hand power to the next generation of leaders. Deng Xiaoping sent tanks to suppress the 1989 democratic movements and Jiang Zemin smashed the FLG and wiped out the China Democracy Party (CDP), sending most of the CDP members to lengthy prison terms and into exile. New leaders when they come to power appear to be politically open and reform-minded. This appearance enhances expectations and invites challenge. Once that happens, the new leaders typically move decisively to demolish the challenges, creating their repressive moments and leaving a conservative legacy.

What distinguishes the most recent repressive episode from the previous ones may be the potential to institutionalize extra-extra law and a strong sense of entitlement. China is gaining impressive economic power under the Party’s leadership and the Party has become more confident in its legitimacy and ability to rule in its own way. At the same time, the Party is facing unprecedented social, economic and, to a lesser degree, political challenges. It feels its vulnerability strongly. But law is not currently perceived to be the most effective tool to handle the emerging crisis.

It is the combination of the Party’s confidence and its vulnerability that has produced the recent repression and explains China’s recent turn against the law. But at what medium- to long-term cost? It is hard to see the deployment of extra-extra law as being part of any sort of thought-through, long-term strategy to shore up political support and ability — the use of extra-extra law is, above all, a grimly expedient policy. The more widely and longer it is used, the less effective it becomes because it generates entrenched resistance. Exhibit A in 2011 for the veracity of this theory, albeit drawn from a wide array of choices, is Syria.

China is well placed, far away from the sort of wretched spiral of state-driven political violence that is convulsing Syria in 2011. A very good reason, amongst many others, is that China has seen for some time that some genuine striving towards a society based on real law offers one of the best political buffers against being drawn down the appalling political pathway epitomized by Syria today. The increasing deployment of extra-extra law, however, undermines that buffer in a frightening way.

June 28, 2011 in Commentary | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bo Xilai reveals his sensitive side

I don't think Bo Xilai, Party secretary of Chongqing, would last long in the snakepit of Washington politics. According to a recent report in the New York Times, he is such a delicate soul that when a retired forestry worker in Chongqing named Fang Hong posted online a scatalogical verse making fun of Bo's persecution of the lawyer Li Zhuang, he (Fang Hong) was shipped off to a year's detention in re-education through labor:

Mr. Fang posted his scatological criticism on April 21 on the Chinese social network Tencent. In it, he compared the case against Mr. Li to excrement that Mr. Bo had handed to his underlings for delivery to Mr. Li — who then returned it, with emphasis, to Mr. Bo. For good measure, Mr. Fang’s online post made a crude sexual pun on Mr. Bo’s name.

On his microblog, Mr. Fang had commented on supposed miscarriages of justice many times before, but the reaction to his April post was swift. Censors ordered the post deleted the next day.

An account by Mr. Fang’s son Fang Di, posted on the Web site of a lawyer, Chen Youxi, details what followed. The elder Mr. Fang was invited to visit the local police station for a talk, his house was placed under surveillance and his electricity and gas were shut off. On April 24, he was detained. And on April 25 he was shipped to a prison for re-education through labor, a punishment meted out to small-time criminals and political miscreants by police officials without judicial oversight.

Here's a web page with relevant documents and commentary, including:

  • commentary by attorney Chen Youxi;
  • a copy of the document announcing the re-education through labor decision;
  • the account of Fang Di referred to in the NYT story;
  • a copy of some Chongqing regulations on legal representation for those sentenced to re-education through labor;
  • a copy of the posting that caused all the trouble, which I won't post directly here because I go to Chongqing from time to time and don't want to have to stay longer than planned.

It's interesting to note that although the provisions on re-education through labor are remarkably vague and elastic, it's a bit of a stretch to make them cover Fang's behavior. Well, you be the judge. The decision notice states that Fang is sentenced under Art. 10(4) of the "Provisional Measures on Re-Education Through Labor" because he has "made up facts and disturbed public order" (虚构事实扰乱公共秩序). The relevant article, however, makes punishable acts of "disturbing social security by acts such as assembling a mob to engage in fighting, stirring up trouble, or instigating a fuss" (yes, it is that vague) (聚众斗殴、寻衅滋事、煽动闹事等扰乱社会治安).

June 11, 2011 in Commentary, News - Chinese Law | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Are Chinese fayuan (法院) courts?

The question of whether and how to translate foreign legal terms has long bedeviled comparative legal studies. (Indeed, I have already assumed what needs to be demonstrated by calling the foreign terms "legal.") No two systems are exactly equivalent; how do we decide that the person who in the foreign system's language is called "fremistan" should be called (for example) "judge" in our system? Obviously, we have to have our own definition of what a "judge" is; it won't do to say that we should just defer to the foreign system's definition and not "impose" our own definition, because the foreign system doesn't use the word "judge"; it calls the person a "fremistan." For all we know before the fact, that describes someone who leads an orchestra by waving a baton.

A great way to get up to speed on this issue is to look at the Bohannan-Gluckman debate (Paul Bohannan, "Ethnography and Comparison in Legal Anthropology," in Laura Nader (ed.), Law in Culture and Society (1969): 401-418 and Max Gluckman, "Concepts in the Comparative Study of Tribal Law," in ibid.: 349-367); here are excerpts. The issue is discussed with relation to China in Thomas B. Stephens, Order and Discipline in China (1992): 3-12. (For a critique of Stephens, see the always-insightful Teemu Ruskola, "Law Without Law, or Is 'Chinese Law' an Oxymoron?", 11 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rights J. 655 (2003).)

This is all by way of preface to talking about whether the institution in China called fayuan (法院) and conventionally translated as "court" should indeed be translated that way. The issue came up recently in a discussion on the Chinalaw listserv, and it seemed worth a blog post.

One contributor commented (slightly edited), "Are Chinese courts real courts in the modern sense? I think the answer is positive; at least they are expected to make impartial decisions and solve disputes."

I think the answer is actually quite difficult, as can be seen if we think about other institutions that are expected to make impartial decisions and solve disputes. Take administrative law judges in the US: would we say that they are institutionally a "court"? What about arbitration tribunals? What about a disciplinary tribunal within an institution (for example, a university) that hears complaints about employees? In all these cases, it seems to me that the answer is, "Well, sort of yes in one sense and sort of no in another sense." And then we have to explain what we mean. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that Chinese judges are more like Article III US federal judges than they are like ALJs, if we have to choose between the two very imperfect analogues. I think there’s a temptation to think, "Well, China must have courts somewhere – we can’t posit a legal system without a court system" and then to focus on fayuan as the most likely candidate (which they would be if the premise were true).

An interesting practical question is where the burden of proof should lie in discussions of this question, and whether that should vary depending on the forum and the purpose of the discussion. Is it for the deniers to show that fayuan aren’t really courts, or for the proponents to show that they really are? As a practical matter, US courts seem to take the position that all countries have well functioning court systems worthy of the name unless it can be shown otherwise, but if we think about it I’m not sure why that should be the default rule. Suppose one party says, "Here’s what a foreign court did," and the other party says, "That wasn’t a court!" Or even more perplexingly, adds, "This institution, not the one pointed to by the other party, is really the foreign country’s court." Whoever’s deciding the question of who’s right has to have their own definition of what constitutes courtness as well as a way of allocating the burden of proof. But these issues don’t seem to get serious consideration. Deference to foreign courts (I really should say "courts") is a matter of etiquette, not justice, and US courts are (or at least in my opinion should be) in the latter business, not the former. And even if we want to defer, we still have to know beforehand that the foreign institution in question really is a court (by our definition of deference-worthy institutions) before we defer to it. There is simply no avoiding the issue.

I might add that deference shown by courts within a system to each other is a different issue; in the US, for example, it's not outlandish to have a default presumption that the judgment of another state's court was made in accordance with procedures that passed constitutional muster.

June 1, 2011 in Commentary | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)