Oral History of China’s Legal Reform

In writing my book on the middle class in China, I am trying to understand China’s legal reform and its implications. Xu Zhen-Xiao, who has a law degree from Xiamen University and is a senior researcher at the Zhejiang Academy of Social Science, gave me a brief history of China’s legal reform.

(Photo credit: The New York Times)

In 1979, China restored the legal system that was abolished during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, there were very few people engaged in the legal profession – most of them were retired academies around sixty years old. Think about it, a new generation lawyers were still in their sophomore year in college. I remember there were less than 200 students who studied law in 1979. They are considered the first generation of lawyers in China.

The second generation lawyers were those who graduated from law schools before 1988. All the lawyers at that time worked for the government bureaus and state-owned legal institutes, and they were considered the government cadres. The government assigned them jobs and paid their salaries.

In 1988, China had the first bar exam for lawyers. It was a very difficult and demanding exam. Only 7 out of a thousand people passed the exam. I was among the first few people who passed the bar exam.

In 1990, China started to reform its legal system. Private law firms were allowed to coexist with the state legal institutes. People could go to the private law firms to file lawsuits. But the problem was that state legal institutes had been around for a long time and they had their clients such as state-owned enterprises. So, the private law firms were really disadvantaged.

After 1993, the private law firms started to increase very fast. You know, it was after Deng Xiao Ping’s south trip. These people were the third generation lawyers. Some people started to speak up.

In 1996, the government decided to separate the state from the law practice, and all the legal institutes became private. It changed the nature of the law profession. The duty of lawyers was now to serve the society, not the government. Many legal practices were changed during this period of time.

Since 1999, the businesses of private law firms really tookoff. These are the fourth generation lawyers in China. The Chinese lawyers charge a very low rate, such as 200 yuan per hour, compared with US lawyers who charge $600 per hour. In many cases, the pay was not based on hours, but a fixed fee. The Chinese legal system is more like European legal systems, and more close to Japan’s too.

(Photo credit: The New York Times)

Now, the government has no role in the law practice. If the government violates people’s rights, people can sue the government. If the government wants to convict somebody, say issue a fine or revoke a business license, it needs to go through public hearings.

China has jurors in court. They make final decisions with the judge. Usually it is one judge and two jurors, and they vote to decide whether the defendant is guilty. The Chinese jurors are also involved with deciding the terms the convicted should serve, etc. They have more duties than American jury.

(To be continued and more information in my upcoming book.)

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