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China: Criminal Justice and Public Security
Country Study > Chapter 13 > Criminal Justice and Public Security


Sweeping reforms in China's legal system were announced at the Second Session of the Fifth National People's Congress held in June and July 1979. New laws on courts, procuratorates, crime, and trials were promulgated. The changes, effective as of January 1, 1980, reflected the leadership's conviction that if economic modernization was to succeed, the people -- who had suffered through the humiliations, capricious arrests, and massive civil disorders of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) -- had to be assured that they no longer would be abused or incarcerated on the basis of hearsay or arbitrary political pronouncements.

From the perspective of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, moreover, codified laws and a strengthened legal system were seen as important means of preventing a possible return of radical policies and a repetition of the era when the Gang of Four ruled by fiat and inconsistent party regulations. Aside from establishing a legal code that would be more difficult for corrupt officials to manipulate, the new laws made the courts responsible for applying all but minor sanctions and made the police answerable to the courts. Procuratorates, which had fallen into disuse during the Cultural Revolution, were reinstituted to prosecute criminal cases, review court decisions, and investigate the legality of actions taken by the police and other government organizations. A greater role for the courts and independent investigations were expected to make it more difficult to introduce politically colored testimony into the courtrooms.

Hard labor still was the most common form of punishment in China in the 1980s. The penal system stressed reform rather than retribution, and it was expected that productive labor would reduce the penal institutions' cost to society. Even death sentences could be stayed by two-year reprieve. If a prisoner was judged to have reformed during that period, his or her sentence could be commuted to life or a fixed term at labor.

Neighborhood committees in the 1980s continued to be heavily involved in law enforcement and mediation of disputes at the local level. Among the enforcement procedures these committees used to influence both thought and behavior were criticism and collective responsibility.

In the period between 1980 and 1987, important progress was made in replacing the rule of men with the rule of law. Laws originally passed in 1979 and earlier were amended and augmented, and law institutes and university law departments that had been closed during the Cultural Revolution were opened to train lawyers and court personnel. It was only a beginning, but important steps had been taken in developing a viable legal system and making the government and the courts answerable to an objective standard.

Data as of July 1987

Last Updated: July 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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