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The Australian National University

China Justice

Former Italian Embassy, Beijing (2000) Photo: Lois Conner

Former Italian Embassy
Beijing (2000)
Photograph by Lois Conner

This research stream examines the potential for justice-related reform in China. It aims to trace the emergence of new political spaces within which reformers are attempting to change the landscape of law and justice. The China Justice theme engages with key issues of how law and justice - including punishment and other state responses to behaviour deemed unacceptable - are negotiated in this age of rapid social transformation.

Criminal law and justice in China today are guided by a political ideal that underscores social stability as a key condition for the success of economic reform. This means that the function of criminal law remains firmly oriented towards maintaining social stability in order to protect social and political order. This function extends to areas tangential to but outside the strict boundaries of criminal law, such as labour, land and environmental law. However, an orientation that is almost exclusively towards state interests may not be sustainable in the long term given the increasingly complex nature of Chinese society. At the central level, the Chinese Communist Party is beginning to acknowledge some of the limitations of employing this strict orientation of law as a key means of rationalising and sustaining its own political future. This has become apparent in recent policy announcements about criminal justice policy reform, justice system reforms and reforms to socio-economic related laws and practices. These reform announcements make reference to the importance of 'harmonising' societal interests as a strategy for preventing social instability. This transition from the exclusive 'stability' to 'stability and harmonious society' as dual state development goals has opened the discursive space for justice authorities to accept a more balanced response to crime control, punishment and other agendas, and for human rights discourses to enter the rhetorical fold.

Yet in many local areas, policing and punishment continue to focus on a political ideal that is exclusively about stability and therefore discourages many forms of dissent. So while the Party has begun to focus on a narrower contingent of those in society deemed to threaten stability and harmony (for instance, people involved in organised crime, violent offenders, drug traffickers and so on), at the local level authorities continue to target perceived dissent or deviance among a much wider segment of the community. Recent reform announcements by central authorities are therefore not necessarily in harmony with the political interests of all politico-legal actors. We see this tension in relation to criminal justice matters and in relation to issues concerning social and economic rights. At the heart of social rights is the protection of labour, health and property. Social policies articulating these rights are tested at the point where legal and moral claims are made to protect them. In many cases, claims to protect these rights are met with intolerance by local authorities. Legal institutionalisation and protection of social and economic rights are now crucial agendas in China. Citizen complaint and direct action to recognise and protect these rights provides a site at which social and economic rights intersect with civil and political rights and with criminal justice policy. The potential for reform in the justice arena - and for tensions between the various justice authorities - also extends to areas such as improving the oversight powers of superior courts; restrictions to police powers; access by defendants to criminal defence lawyers; the re-education through labour system; and local court-government relations including funding and corruption issues. For example, the judicial system is currently testing a 'softer' approach to policing and punishment. This involves a substantial decrease in the use of the death penalty and the decriminalisation of many minor offences, a move which is not welcomed at all politico-legal levels.

This research theme will encourage scholars to address issues in these areas through approaches that privilege the importance of politics and contemporary history in informing current and future directions of state responses to law, justice, rights and punishment.

Updated:  4 March 2013/Responsible Officer:  Director, China in the World /Page Contact:  China in the World