Chinese Legal Reform

Since 1999, the Paul Tsai China Center has initiated and steadily expanded collaborative projects with a range of institutions and individuals in China, including the courts, administrative departments, the legislature, leading universities, scholars, and lawyers. The Center’s current projects are focused on judicial reform, administrative law, policy and regulatory reform, criminal law and procedure, civil society and public interest law, constitutional law, and legal education. Our projects promote the Center's mission in a variety of ways.

  • Exchange and cooperation programs in areas of law and policy help promote China’s reform process, increase understanding about China in the United States, and further improve China–U.S. relations.
  • The Center’s cooperative projects with key legal institutions and reformers in China provide us with unique opportunities to observe and analyze developments in China’s legal and political system.
  • An extensive program of publications, lectures, public testimony, and other outreach activities communicate our insights to policymakers, academics, and the broader public.
  • The Center’s support of research and training deepens the understanding of the Chinese legal and political system while increasing capacity in the United States for effective future interaction with China.

Center faculty regularly teach at the Law School, with courses that are typically open to others in the Yale community. These have included courses in U.S. Foreign Policy, U.S. Foreign Policy and Law, a weekly workshop on China-related issues, as well as supervision of research projects of individual students. In recent years, China Center faculty have taught the Contemporary China Research Seminar at Yale Law School, in which students produce publishable, original research on issues of U.S.–China relations or Chinese legal reform.

In combining cooperative law reform projects with research and education in a mutually reinforcing way, the Paul Tsai China Center is playing a unique role, and its work has established a significant new channel between China and the United States.

It is now widely accepted in China that the judicial system must be reformed if it is to play an essential role as China develops a market economy, experiences a growing consciousness of legal rights, and develops fair, efficient, and predictable institutions to settle disputes and check bureaucratic power. China’s Supreme People’s Court has taken a number of positive steps in recent years to increase the transparency of court proceedings, strengthen the authority and professionalism of judges, encourage more active participation by litigants and their lawyers, and advance fair and evenhanded decision-making. However, lack of judicial independence, poor training, deficient litigation procedures, inadequate protections for criminal suspects and defendants, reliance on local governments for personnel and funding, and corruption, among other factors, have continued to undermine the courts’ ability to handle cases fairly and efficiently.

While extensive and fundamental reforms are still needed, more narrow reforms can also improve China’s courts in important ways. Since its founding, our Center has been working with key institutions and individuals in China — including the courts — to help promote judicial reform and make this a priority area of our work. This includes institutional reform in areas such as judicial transparency and precedential cases; administrative litigation reform involving disputes between citizens and the government; and criminal justice work covering a range of important issues that implicate judicial justice and protection of human rights.

Administrative law, policy, and regulatory reform in China involve an exceptionally broad range of issues concerning the relationship between individual citizens and the state. It is a potentially key means of increasing the openness, fairness, predictability, and democratic responsiveness of China’s vast bureaucracies in their pervasive involvement with individuals and organizations.

The Center’s projects in this area have focused both on the building blocks of administrative law, including laws related to licensing, administrative dispute resolution, and procedure; on regulatory reforms in areas such as food and drug safety; and on reforms and discussions designed to help transform citizen-state relations, particularly in terms of public participation in policymaking and open government information. We have worked on these issues with Chinese government, academic, and civil society partners at both national and local levels.

In addition to our focus on transparency, public participation, regulatory reform, and accountability, our research and cooperative projects also address the emerging legal framework for government–civil society partnerships that promote access to justice and engage the participation of the non-governmental sector in providing social services.

Criminal law and procedure reform in China involves a wide range of important issues that implicate judicial justice and protection of human rights. These include criminal procedure law reform; sentencing reform; developing standards of evidence; preventing coerced confessions; strengthening defense counsel; protecting the rights of juvenile offenders and the mentally ill; addressing procedures for minor crimes; and developing alternatives to incarceration, including the creation and improved use of community-based corrections programs.

These issues are extremely important and remain highly sensitive in China. Our Center’s projects have focused on efforts by legislatures, scholars, lawyers, and advocates to help promote reforms to improve fairness, effectiveness, and rights-protection in China’s criminal justice system.

With the development of China’s legal system and growing rights consciousness among Chinese citizens, new opportunities have emerged for Chinese lawyers, advocates, and non-governmental organizations to play a larger role in public interest advocacy and civil rights enforcement in areas from anti-discrimination to consumer protection. Our Center has worked with a range of government, academic, and civil society partners on improving the regulatory framework for civil society development and building capacity for rights advocacy.

The Center’s projects have covered a variety of issues including government–civil society partnerships, social service delivery, legal advocacy, and gender, elder, disability and LGBT rights, among other areas. The increasing attention devoted to such issues by Chinese government and non-government actors reflects the dynamic development of civil society and public interest law in China.

In the past, most observers have viewed China’s Constitution as largely irrelevant to concrete legal and policy issues in China. Recent developments, however, indicate that the Chinese Constitution is becoming more significant in legal reform and is also drawing more attention to broader civil rights protections. Though still a sensitive topic in China, discussions about constitutionalism and constitutional review are at an important crossroads. Even in the absence of institutions to independently enforce constitutional requirements, constitutional law is developing in China largely through the emergence of popular support for it and through the invocation of China’s Constitution in policy and legal argument.

The Center’s continuing work on judicial review, courts, the media and public opinion, and public interest law has created new opportunities to contribute to emerging reforms in the area of constitutional law and constitutional enforcement.