Conclusion: the future of legal reform
Twenty years ago few would have predicted that China's legal system would have developed to the degree that it has. Given the remarkable progress, skeptics who deny any fundamental change in the basic nature of China's legal system seem unduly pessimistic or cynical. 1 On the other hand, liberals who think that China is on the way to establishing a liberal legal system of the kind found in Western democracies seem at once overly optimistic and underappreciative of differences in fundamental values that have led many Asian countries to resist the influence of liberalism in favor of their own brand of “Asian values” (differences which remain even after we discount the self-interested claims of leaders of authoritarian governments). 2
I have suggested a middle ground. While the footprint of the system's instrumental rule-by-law heritage remains visible, there is considerable evidence of a shift from a legal regime best characterized as rule by law toward a system that complies with the basic elements of a thin rule of law. Despite numerous obstacles, the legal regime will most likely continue to develop toward some form of rule of law that meets the requirements of a thin rule of law. Yet there is little evidence of a shift toward a rule of law understood to entail democracy and a liberal version of human rights that gives priority to civil and political rights. Accordingly, we need to take seriously alternative conceptions to a Liberal Democratic rule of law. China is more likely to adopt a Statist Socialist, Neoauthoritarian, and Communitarian version of rule of law than it is to adopt a Liberal Democratic one.
In many ways, legal reforms today are in a similar state to that of economic reforms ten years ago. After Tiananmen in 1989 and before Deng's trip south in 1992, when he threw his considerable political weight behind further reforms, the economy stood poised between a centrally planned economy and a market economy. Conservative forces opposed