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Introduction to China's Legal System

The legal system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is defined by the government as a “socialist legal system.”  Despite the official definition, however, China’s legal system is based primarily on the model of Civil Law.  The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China is the highest law within China.  The current version was adopted in 1982 with further revisions in 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004.

There are four levels of the court system in China: the grassroots, intermediate, higher and supreme people's courts, in addition to special courts such as the military, maritime, railway and forestry courts.

Organization Chart

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Official Sources of Law

Statutory Law

  • Laws (fa lü): promulgated by the National People’s Congress (NPC) and its Standing Committee.
  • Administrative Regulations (xing zheng fa güi): promulgated by the State Council.
  • Local Regulations (di fang fa güi): promulgated by local People’s Congress (hereinafter Local NPC) and its standing committee.
  • Administrative Rules (xingzheng güizhang), including:
    • Local Rules (difang zhengfu güizhang): promulgated by the local governments;
    • Departmental Rules (bumen güizhang): promulgated by the ministries and commissions under the State Council, the People’s Bank of China, the Auditing Office, and other departments with administrative responsibilities directly under the State Council.
  • Military Regulations: promulgated by the Central Military Commission in accordance with the Constitution and the Laws, and Military Rules enacted by the lower level military authorities within their powers and responsibilities.

Judicial Interpretation

Judicial precedents are not enforceable in China.  The Supreme People’s Court (SPC), however, bears the authority to issue Judicial Interpretations (sifa jieshi) as guidelines to the trials, which are nationally enforceable.

Treaties

The treaties (tiao yue) China has entered are also legally effective documents.  The PRC Constitution and the Law of Legislation do not provide the relationship between treaties and domestic law.

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Print Sources

Official Publications of Statutory Law

Official Publications of Individual Statues

  • Laws: Gazette of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC Gazette)
  • Administrative Regulations: Gazette of the State Council (State Council Gazette)
  • Local Regulations: Gazette of the standing committees of the relevant people’s congress
  • Departmental Rules: State Council Gazette or gazette of the relevant department
  • Local Rules: Gazette of the relevant people’s government
  • Military Regulations and Rules: only those non-confidential could be published, which must on the military newspapers

Official Publications of Statutory Compilations (non-exclusive)

  • Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Falü Huibian [The Laws of the People’s Republic of China], edited by the NPC Standing Committee Law Working Commission (NPCLWC), published by the People’s Press (available at the Law Library of Congress: KNQ12.C48)
  • Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Xianxing Falü Xingzheng Fagui Huibian [The Effective Laws and Administrative Regulations of the People’s Republic of China], edited by the NPCLWC, published by the People’s Press (available at the Law Library of Congress: KNQ13 2002a

    [Note: NPCLWC is authorized to compile Laws, comprehensive compilations of Laws, Administrative Regulations, Local Regulations and Administrative Rules.  The People’s Press (ren min chu ban she) is designated to publish the compilations for the NPCLWC.]

  • Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Fagui Huibian [The Laws and Regulations of the People’s Republic of China], edited by the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council (SCLAO), published by the Chinese Legal System Press (available at the Law Library of Congress: KNQ12.C483);
  • Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Xin Fagui Huibian [New Laws and Regulations of the People’s Republic of China], edited by the SCLAO, published by the Chinese Legal System Press (available at the Law Library of Congress: KNQ12.C45)
    [Note: the SCLAO is authorized to compile Administrative Regulations, and comprehensive compilations of Laws, Administrative Regulations, Local Regulations and Administrative Rules.  The People’s Press, Law Press China (fa lü chu ban she), Chinese Legal System Press (zhong guo fa zhi chu ban she) and Democracy and Law Publishing House (min zhu fa zhi chu ban she) (collectively, the Four Law Publishers) are designated as the publishers of the compilations for the SCLAO.]
  • Zhongguo Huanjing Baohu Fagui Quanshu [Compilation of the Laws and Regulations of the Environmental Protect], edited by the National Environmental Protection Bureau (available at the Law Library of Congress: KNQ3128.A32)
    [Note: Each of the departments of the State Council is authorized to compile the Department Rules within its area of power and responsibility, and comprehensive compilations of Laws, Administrative Regulations and Department Rules within its area of power and responsibility.  The designated publishers of these compilations are the professional publishing houses managed by the departments, and if no such publishing house is available, one of other central government professional publishers approved by the Administration of Press and Publication, or one of the above mentioned Four Law Publishers may be designated as publisher.
  • Hunansheng Difangxing Fagui Huibian [Local Regulations of Hunan Province], edited by the Legal Working Committee of the Standing Committee of the Hunan Provincial People’s Congress (available at the Law Library of Congress: KNQ5902.3)
    [Note: the local people’s congress and the government’s designated authorities (which are generally legal offices within the congress and government) are authorized to compile and publish the Local Regulations and Local Rules within their own legislative authorities, as well as comprehensive compilations of Local Regulations and Local Rules effective in their region.  The publishers may be local publishers, or the Four Law Publishers.]

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Official Publications of Judicial Interpretation

The SPC publish judicial interpretations in its gazette. The SPC also publishes judicial interpretations in its subsidiary newspaper, the People’s Court (renmin fayuan bao).  There are compilations of judicial interpretation available, which, however, are not designated by the SPC as official.

Example: Zuixin Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Changyong Sifa Jieshi Quanshu [Compilation of the Most Recent Often-Used Judicial Interpretation of the People’s Republic of China], available at the Law Library of Congress (K28.I536).

Official Case Law Publishing

Case law is not a primary source of PRC law; thus, decisions are not required by law to be made public.  The courts publish only a small amount of selected cases in their gazettes.  No court in China currently publishes all of their court opinions without selection and amendments.

Though not designated by any laws or regulations as official, ren min fa yuan an li xuan [Selective Compilation of the People’s Court Cases] is generally taken to be official because its publication is decided by the SPC.

Official Publication of Treaties

Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Tiaoyue Ji  [International Treaties of the People’s republic of China], edited by the MFA (available at the Law Library of Congress: KZ965.3.C45)

[Note: Treaties which the NPC Standing Committee has decided to ratify or to accede to are published in the NPC Gazette.  The official publication of other treaties depends on the decision of the State Council.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is authorized to compile treaties into Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Tiaoyue Ji (Collection of the Treaties of the People’s Republic of China), and publish this compilation.]

Printed Publication in English

Example: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Falü Huibian [Chinese-English Edition, Laws of the People’s Republic of China], compiled by the NPCLWC, published by the Law Press China (available at the Law Library of Congress: KNQ3190. A28)

[Note: The English versions of PRC statutes have no legal effect in China, even if they are translated and published by the legislative authorities.  However, the law does provide official publication of the English versions of laws and administrative regulations.  In addition, these English versions of statutory compilations must be published by the Foreign Language Press (wai wen chu ban she), the People’s Press, or Law Press China.

  • Laws: must be compiled by the NPCLWC, or the NPCLWC involves itself in the editorial process.
  • Administrative Regulations: must be compiled by the SCLAO, or the SCLAO is involved in the editorial process.

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Web Resources

Online Databases

  • ChinaLawInfo (in Chinese and in English) – affiliated with the Peking University Law School, this online legal database includes laws, regulations, journal articles, legal news.
  • iSinoLaw (in both Chinese and English) – launched in 2000 by isinolaw Limited and isinolaw Research Center in Hong Kong, containing comprehensive Chinese legal documents.
  • Ceilaw (in Chinese) – affiliated with the State Council, this database used to be available within Chinese government agencies via an internal government communication network.  The Web site was launched in 1997 and is available in Chinese only.

Official Government Resources

Web Sites in English

  • AsianLII – the website contains an A to Z list of laws of the PRC derived mainly from government websites including ChinaLaw (Information Centre for Legislative Affairs Office of the PRC State Council) and ChinaCourt (Supreme Peoples' Court).
  • SinoLaw – this database is run by a Chinese information service agency in Beijing.  Though SinoLaw emphasizes commercial and business laws, it also includes basic laws, major statutes, and regulations of the PRC.
  • China Law Digest
  • Research Guides to Chinese Law
  • China Law Blog
  • ABA Section of International Law: China Committee
  • EastView Online – the full text journal database houses a comprehensive range of research articles, including legal literature. This commercial database has an English index and also Chinese full text.
  • Chinese Legal Research – University of Washington School of Law, Gallagher Law Library
  • Chinese Law Prof Blog – run by Prof. Donald Clarke, George Washington University Law School

For more information on China see:

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Last Updated: 03/07/2014