China's Legal Awakening: Legal Theory and Criminal Justice in Deng's Era

By Carlos Wing-Hung Lo | Go to book overview

Chapter Nine The 1989 Student Democratic Movement: A Legal Perspective

The Chinese socialist legal system developed steadily after its re-establishment by the Third Plenum in 1978, according to Deng Xiaoping's vision of political stability. A framework was secured for building socialism in a peaceful environment. For more than a decade, Communist Party leaders tried to reconcile Chinese Marxism with a positive notion of socialist law and for more than six years, 1983-89, the Party attempted to graft the political system on to a constitutional scheme. Current legal reform was based on the hope that China was heading towards a comprehensive socialist legal order. But encouraging signs that China was turning away from ideological concerns to more practical ones, geared to socialist construction, did not dissipate scepticism concerning the Party's commitment to a legal order. Behind the optimism, one could always perceive limits on the rule of law, namely those imposed by the Four Cardinal Principles. The proclaimed harmony between law and Party leadership merely obscured latent conflict. The crux of the matter was the extent to which a legal order was feasible in a Communist regime, with a political tradition hostile to law and enshrined in Marxist ideology. Nevertheless, the increasing political tolerance shown by the regime considerably tempered Party arrogance and gave more scope for the development of a legal order.

One might see that a political crisis could provide a test of the Party's commitment to the rule of law.1 In retrospect, legal order, under Deng, never proceeded smoothly. It had to survive the two-year campaign against 'spiritual pollution' after 1983 and the short-lived campaign against 'bourgeois liberalization' after the 1986 student demonstrations. Yet survive it did. The Party continued with reform and handled any crisis legally.

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1
See Chapter One on The Impact of Ideological Upheaval on the Legal System in China.

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