The Chinese legal system may have been shattered during Mao’s Cultural Revolution but that didn’t last forever. After Mao died, China rose from the ashes like a phoenix and a lot has changed since then.
For instance, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on December 11, 2001. The admission of China to the WTO was preceded by a lengthy process of negotiations and required significant changes to China itself.
Many elements in China’s WTO accession agreement required improving the rule of law. When China joined the WTO, China agreed to ensure that its legal measures would be consistent with its WTO obligations and that led to China’s Rule of Law Reform.
In addition, China made a substantial number of other WTO commitments related to the rule of law in areas of transparency, judicial review, uniform enforcement of laws, and nondiscriminatory treatment.
China then reformed its judicial processes to ensure that they were compatible with its WTO commitments.
This transition from Chinese to western legalism hasn’t been as smooth as some critics wanted it to be, but it is taking place, and it’s clear that in the last few decades China has made an effort to fit into the community of nations while retaining its own identity.
That might be explained by the differences between Chinese legalism and Western legalism primarily related to morality. Western legalism defends the rule-of-law but argues against the morality of law. In contrast, Chinese legalism, especially in the early Pre-Qin era, did not separate morality from the law.
The fidelity to law in Chinese legalism was interpreted as the fidelity to the monarch in moral terms often as defined by Confucianism. In other words, morality in the United States and Europe is mostly based on the teachings of Christianity and many western philosophers while the morality of China is mostly based on Confucianism.
Understanding China’s history and the morality that’s part of its legal system is often ignored by many in the west, especially many Americans that judge China based on Western values and laws.
For instance, a conservative, born-again Christian, former friend of mine, once said to me that China needed a proper legal system. Since China already had a legal system, what did he mean by that?
I knew this individual for almost sixty-years, and I’m sure he meant that China should have a legal system like the one in the U.S. or the U.K. After all, he claimed scripture guided his life and the Christian Bible has been around for centuries proving it comes from God. To him, that meant there was no other choice. For his approval, China had to bend toward Christian scripture.
The problem with that logic is Confucius was around spreading his teaching for centuries before Jesus Christ was born, and the fact that the New Testament didn’t exist for centuries until after Christ died meant that what Confucius taught has been around longer. Was God behind that too?
The Chinese learned from Confucius while in the West we learned from the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. There were many other voices that influenced western thought, and Eternity in an Hour provides a list of famous western philosophers. Do you think that too many voices often leads to confusion, and that might explain why Chinese civilization has been more stable over the millennia than the west has?
If China becomes the world’s super power in the next fifty to one-hundred years, will the Chinese judge the United States and Europe based on Confucian morality?
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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.
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