Spring 2014

Legal Reform: China’s Law-Stability Paradox

Benjamin L. Liebman

In the 1980s and 1990s, China devoted extensive resources to constructing a legal system, in part in the belief that legal institutions would enhance both stability and regime legitimacy. Why, then, did China's leadership retreat from using law when faced with perceived increases in protests, citizen complaints, and social discontent in the 2000s? This law-stability paradox suggests that party-state leaders do not trust legal institutions to play primary roles in addressing many of the most complex issues resulting from China's rapid social transformation. This signifies a retreat not only from legal reform, but also from the rule-based model of authoritarian governance that has contributed much to the resilience of the Chinese system. The law-stability paradox also highlights the difficulties facing efforts by China's new leadership to reinvigorate legal reform.

BENJAMIN L. LIEBMAN is the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School. His recent publications include “Leniency in Chinese Criminal Law? Everyday Justice in Henan,” in the Berkeley Journal of International Law (forthcoming 2014); “Malpractice Mobs: Medical Dispute Resolution in China,” in the Columbia Law Review (2013); “A Return to Populist Legality? Historical Legacies and Legal Reform,” in Mao's Invisible Hand (edited by Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry, 2011); and “Toward Competitive Supervision? The Media and the Courts,” in The China Quarterly (2011).

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