China Will Not Apply Western Law


The news reported yet another crackdown against dissidents and rights advocates in China. While we may and should criticize human rights abuses, we also need to understand why the Chinese distrust of the western approach to law.

China never set out to colonize the world. They instead built a Great Wall to keep people out. From the arrival of the colonial Portuguese (1517) through the 20th Century, western European powers imposed their will on China. At the point of a gun, Britain seized Hong Kong (1842), and later the Kowloon Peninsula. They forced China to surrender their seaports to nine western states, under unfair treaties (1860). China was required, for example, to give Britain a lease to Hong Kong, rent free, for 99 years (1898). The west ultimately controlled 60 Chinese ports.

The unfair treaties led to anti-Western sentiments and the Boxer Rebellion (1898-00). Troops from England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Russia and the U.S. were sent to suppress it. Following WWII, Mao Tse Tung’s troops won the Chinese Civil War (1949) and ushered in a People’s Republic, which ousted the Europeans from the mainland, for the first time in 432 years.

As the American War in Vietnam (1965-73) escalated, Mao feared the infiltrating power of the U.S. and started a Cultural Revolution to purge China of all western influence (1966-68). A Red Guard of 22 million teens moved all persons educated in the West to the rice fields. They carried Mao’s little Red Book and quoted his works, as they closed schools and universities, to restructure the curriculums. They attacked those who resisted, such as journalists and intellectuals. Some were forced to wear dunce caps, and were given manual work to get their minds right.

When Mao died, his anti-western policies were reversed (1976) and the Gang of Four (including Mao’s wife) were put on trial for Cultural Revolution excesses (1978). President Carter established diplomatic ties, ending decades of strained relations (1979). China reopened their law schools and resumed trade with the west, as they moved from a controlled to a market economy (1979). The law schools started graduating attorneys again in 1983, following a 17-year hiatus. President Reagan traveled to China and signed trade deals, which allowed U.S. businesses to conduct trade (1984).

I personally witnessed the Chinese legal system that year. I toured a prison in Beijing in 1984, which housed 1,900 prisoners, of whom 50 were counter-revolutionaries. As I walked through the facility, the inmates were making bicycles. They could not look at me. Their inability to even glance away, for just a split second, was chilling. I had been in U.S. jailhouses, as a lawyer, but the strict atmosphere in this prison, made a lasting impression.

I also visited the People’s Court in Shanghai, where I noticed no trials in progress, even though the city had millions of residents. I asked how many lawyers there were in Shanghai and was told there were only 850. Individual rights were at great risk in China, given the shortage of lawyers, caused by the Cultural Revolution.

While China subsequently increased their number of attorneys, they still give the state more respect than the individual. When students rallied for democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and demanded a free press in 1989, the army fired upon them.

While China today is now willing to conduct trade with the west, they still distrust the Anglo-American western legal system, which was so unfair to them for hundreds of years during the colonial era. This is why it is difficult to convince China to accept our approach to law. The Chinese politely reject westerners who lecture them regarding law, particularly when the preachers are from one of the countries that historically abused their rights.

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