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Government, Judiciary

Wei Jingsheng, family arguments, criminal procedure code, procurator, labor camps

China traditionally lacked Western-style ideas of judicial independence and due process of law. The development of a modern legal system was first attempted in the early 20th century but revolution and civil war ended these efforts. When the Communist government took power in 1949, it initially made little effort to create an adequate legal code that clearly detailed illegal activity or a uniform process for dealing with the accused. Since reforms in 1978, however, China has constructed the beginnings of a modern legal and judicial system. The government has enacted hundreds of laws. Many deal with economic subjects, but others govern the administration of prisons and the activities of lawyers and judges.

The Chinese legal system has four components: a court system; a public security administration, or police component; an office of the procurator, or public prosecutor; and a system of prisons and labor camps. The highest court is the Supreme People’s Court, which supervises the administration of justice by the various lower levels of people’s courts. The Supreme People’s Court does not have the power of constitutional supervision. That power is vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Lower courts, public prosecutors, and public security offices exist at the provincial, county, and municipal levels. In addition, public security offices function at the neighborhood level. China also has begun to cultivate a cadre of public and private lawyers, who numbered only about 5,000 in 1980 but have since increased to more than 100,000.

In theory, judges are appointed by and are accountable to their corresponding level of people’s congress. In actuality, however, judges are chosen by CCP personnel departments and are supervised by the party and the Ministry of Justice.

The procurators and courts function in close coordination with the police and other administrative agencies. Nonetheless, they are supposed to perform their functions independently, and citizens are bringing economic and other disputes to court more frequently. The CCP often acts as an informal mediator between aggrieved parties. This type of paralegal mediation has influenced resolutions of neighborhood disputes, divorces, family arguments, and minor thefts. The criminal procedure code guarantees the right to a defense, but the defense is often just a formality or an argument by the defense counsel for a lighter sentence. Under a system of reeducation through labor, Chinese law permits the police and other administrative authorities to impose up to three years of detention without trial.

Some political trials are highly publicized; among the most prominent of these was the trial of the Gang of Four (1980-1981), who were convicted of crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution. Political trials of dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng, who was tried in both 1979 and 1994 for pro-democracy activities, are closed to all but selected viewers.

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