This month marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most important events in the world's modern history. But a quarter of a century ago, only the participants at the annual plenary meeting of the Chinese Communist Party and a small group of specialists in this country were paying attention.
Yet it was at this gathering that China's Communist Party rejected three decades of Maoist autarky and made the historic decision to reform China's domestic economy along market lines and open up the country to foreign trade and investment. As a result, the economic, political, and cultural well-being of a fifth of the world's population has vastly improved.
To be sure, not everyone in China has done equally well in the course of this transformation. In some places, such as remote rural communities, a few may have even lost ground since 1978. The market reforms, especially in the past few years, along with China's accession two years ago to the World Trade Organization, have also put quite a number of industrial workers out of work.
But the epochmaking Third Plenum of the Eleventh Communist Party 25 years ago has made the Chinese people far freer politically and culturally than they could have dreamed.
In that meeting, China's leaders adopted a legal maxim summed up in a 16-character phrase. Loosely translated, it means: "There must be law on which to rely; where there are laws, they must be followed; in enforcing laws, we must be strict; violations of the laws must be corrected." This, too, was a call to turn away from Maoist antinomianism and the Marxist false hope that the law and the state would wither away. Instead, China began to develop a more modern legal order better suited to the needs of its ambitious economic development plans.
By July 1979, China had enacted its first criminal law and criminal procedure. More surprisingly, it also promulgated the Sino- Foreign Equity Joint Venture Law, allowing foreign investors to set up enterprises in China with majority foreign ownership in order to kick-start China's economy and to bring in modern management practices. No other socialist country up to that time had made such a dramatic pitch for foreign capital or conceded so much in order to obtain it.
Of course, the legal development of China over that past quarter century has not traced a smooth trajectory. The massacre in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 was probably the lowest ebb in this arena, particularly in contrast to the far happier news that emanated from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union shortly afterward with the fall of the Berlin Wall. …