China has no strong tradition of rule of law. After the fall of the last dynasty the country is fragmented; it has no strong central government and is marked by great internal turmoil and foreign invasion. These conditions are not propitious for legal development.
Mao believes that the legal system only "dams up the free flow of revolution." The law is considered the ideological instrument of politics. The Communist Party enjoys absolute control over the creation of law by the organs of the state, and government is by decree rather than law. There is a 70 percent decrease in the number of lawyers by 1957. People's courts at all levels come to a standstill.
The Cultural Revolution disrupts all concept of law by eliminating virtually all legal professionals and closing all law schools. It is a time of anarchy during which "lawlessness" is praised. Lawyers are relocated to farms and factories for reeducation. China is essentially a lawless nation.
In 1978 Deng declares that democracy must be institutionalized and written into law so institutions will be consistent even as leaders change. All former laws and decrees are put into effect again. Criminal and counterrevolutionary cases brought during the Cultural Revolution are examined. The legal system is restored, legal colleges established, and thousands of new laws developed.
A new Criminal Code is adopted in 1980, and a month-long trial is held for the Gang of Four, who are charged with all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A guilty verdict is delivered for all four, and even Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, receives a death sentence, though it is later commuted to life in prison.
The government agrees that a market economy requires a modern legal framework. New laws are enacted to cover crime, civil life, administration, inheritance, contracts, patents, trademarks, and foreign joint ventures. "Law popularization" campaigns help educate the public about law and legality, but the CCP retains a monopoly of power over all important social, political, and economic institutions.
An estimated 800 to 1,300 protestors die when the army opens fire on them in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Another 10,000 to 30,000 participants are imprisoned, and many remain there today. China's longest held political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng, is released for "health reasons" in 1997 and later exiled to the United States.
Jiang Zemin declares his government fully committed to the rule of law, a requirement for WTO membership. But on the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic, Amnesty finds the country is in "the most serious crackdown on peaceful dissent for a decade." Corruption appears to be endemic. China is the world's most active user of the death penalty, which it applies for a wide range of crimes.
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