China's Path Toward the Rule of Law

The Promise and Pitfalls of Its Forthcoming Civil Code

Security officers prepare ahead of the closing session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 2017. Thomas Peter / REUTERS

Earlier this month, at the conclusion of the annual meeting of its National People’s Congress (NPC), China moved one step closer to instituting a unified civil code. The body formally approved the General Principles of the Civil Law, which are guidelines on how laws governing all aspects of civilian life, from marriage to real estate ownership to personal injury, should be drafted, with the ultimate aim of completing the code by 2020.

Outside observers might be surprised that China has been able to operate at this level of economic activity without a formal civil code. Although China started developing a sophisticated commercial legal infrastructure in the 1980s, however, its other legal systems are still being put in place. With a growing influx of cases related to everything from family law to intellectual property to trusts and estates, the Supreme People’s Court has made clear that it is high time to build out and restructure the court system.

Establishing a civil code is an inherently political act. Some officials and legal scholars fear that by setting forth the rights protected by law, Beijing would open the doors to a “color revolution.” For example, Liang Huixing of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has gone so far as to equate formal rights of property and speech with “unchecked freedom,” which he fears could lead to an uprising similar to that in Ukraine in 2014.


Indeed, it is in fact small wonder that China does not have a civil code despite multiple prior attempts to establish one. On several occasions when it attempted to do so, including in 1954, 1962, 1979, and 2001, process toward a civil code ground to a halt. During the Cultural Revolution, all official discussions about a civil code ended because of the chaotic political environment. In 1979, economic reform and the opening up of China provided unique impetus for a legal code, but there was too much disagreement among drafters about process and underlying approach. In 1986, the current

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