China's legal system, instituted after the establishment of the PRC in 1949, is largely based on that of the former USSR. However, after 1957, Mao Zedong's government consistently circumvented the system in its campaign to purge the country of rightist elements and "counter-revolutionaries." The Ministry of Justice was closed down in 1959, not to reopen until 1979, and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution wrought havoc on legal institutions and procedures. Efforts to reestablish a credible legal system resumed in 1977 (when there were no lawyers in China), as party moderates came to power. These efforts were accelerated in the early 1980s as China sought to provide the legal protection required by foreign investors.
The highest judicial organ is the Supreme People's Court, which, with the Supreme People's Procuratorates, supervises the administration of justice in the basic people's courts and people's tribunals (courts of first instance), intermediate people's courts, and higher people's courts. The judiciary is independent but subject to the Communist Party's policy guidance. The legal profession was still in an incipient stage of development in the mid-1980s. Over 25 law departments at universities and four special schools for training legal officials were in operation in 1987, when China had 26,000 lawyers. By 1993, there were 70,000 lawyers with plans to increase this number to 150,000.
A major anticrime campaign during the autumn of 1983 resulted in public executions at the rate of at least 200 a month; capital punishment may be meted out for 65 offenses, including embezzlement and theft. Under the Chinese criminal codes, as revised in 1979, local committees may sentence "hoodlums" to terms in labor camps of up to four years, in proceedings that grant the suspect no apparent opportunity for defense or appeal. Government records for 1990 indicated that nearly 870,000 persons were assigned to such camps during the 1980s. Since 1990, sentences to labor camps may be judicially challenged under the Administrative Procedures Law. In practice the review of such a sentence is rarely sought.
Due process rights are afforded in the 1982 Constitution, but they have limited practical import. The Criminal Procedural Law requires public trials, with an exception for cases involving state secrets, juveniles, or personal privacy. Cases are rapidly processed and conviction rates are about 99%. The 1976 Criminal Code contained 26 crimes punishable by death. A 1995 law raised this number to 65, including financial crimes such as passing fake negotiable notes and letters of credit, and illegal "pooling" of funds. Appeal is possible but with little chance of success. However in 1996, the National Peoples' Congress passed new legislation to reform criminal procedure and the legal profession. The new legislation recognized for the first time that lawyers represent their clients, not the state. Under the new system lawyers may establish private law firms. Defendants may also ask near relatives or guardians to provide additional defense.
Amendments to the criminal procedure became effective in January 1997. The amendments state that suspects may retain a lawyer after being first interrogated by an investigative organ. Attorneys may conduct limited investigation, call defense witnesses, and argue their client's cases in open court. According to the amendments defendants will enjoy a presumption of innocence.
Beginning in 1998, the government began a comprehensive "internal shake-up" of the judiciary, resulting in the punishment or dismissal of over 4,200 judicial branch employees. In January 1999, the former head of the Anticorruption Bureau of the Supreme People's Procuratorate was dismissed for corruption.
China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December 2001 has caused China to undertake a full-scale revision of its laws and regulations in order to adhere to WTO rules. In opening its market up to sectors involving finance, insurance, telecommunications, commerce, transportation, construction, tourism, and other services, China will require its judicial system to perform in accordance with international standards.
As of January 2003, China's lawyers were adhering to a new policy to wear black suits in court, in an attempt to promote professionalism and as a step toward integration with international practices.