Bird in a Cage: Chinese Law Reform after Twenty Years

Lubman, Stanley | January 1, 2000

When I wrote in 1979, it was easy to summarize the state of Chinese legal institutions because they were so sparse. Although a judicial system had been created on the Soviet model in the 1950s, it had been politicized by the end of that decade after a brief period of liberalization, and then further wrecked by the Cultural Revolution. A new period of institution-building began in 1979; reconstruction of the courts began and the law schools, closed for a decade, reopened. Most fundamentally, the policies of the Chinese leadership seemed to promise, as I noted then, “attempts to conceptualize and articulate notions of law as an objective set of rules and standards to protect rights.”‘ At the time, there was only promise; my article cited no legislation giving shape to new institutions, because none had yet appeared. The evidence of impending change seemed clear, promptingme to pose some questions about what might lie ahead in the future. My earlier speculations still seem timely today, and I have revisited them below in this article. I have surveyed Chinese law reform and the obstacles to further reform more extensively in a book, Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao, whose title I have borrowed and from which I have drawn for this article.