UC Irvine Journal of International, Transnational, and Comparative Law


Ji Li


The rule of law, an abstract concept heavily debated among legal scholars and social scientists, has in the past few decades acquired a nearly universal appeal, as democracies, autocracies, and oligarchies all claim to uphold it. The Chinese government, for instance, announced in 2012 a comprehensive plan to advance law-based governance in China and has since undertaken major legal reforms. Repeatedly, Xi and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) have pledged to build a “rule of law country.” But when the ruling elites of a one-party authoritarian state allege commitment to the rule of law, what do they really mean? How is it different from the Western concepts of the rule of law, especially the “thick” version of it, that has been closely tied to liberal democratic values? What are the key features of the “rule of law with Chinese characteristics”? And how will it impact the international legal order? Applying a transnational legal ordering framework, this Article attempts some answers. It proceeds in two sections. Section One traces the development of the Chinese legal system and the evolving rule of law debates in China. Unlike prior research on this topic, which has generally treated the sovereign state as the unit of analysis, this section highlights the power dynamics within the Chinese ruling elites and the influence of the international legal community as well as the global rule of law discourse. Section Two reverses the inquiry and explores how China might impact the international legal order. It contends that varying coalitions of Chinese actors populate the interfaces between China and international law across different issue areas and that China’s impacts on the international legal order vary as well. Both sections will also discuss how the ideological remnants have produced three common, entrenched perceptions of law and legal institutions: legal instrumentalism, economic determinism, and linearity of institutional changes, and how these perceptions have modified China’s interactions with international law.

Google Ngrams rule of law 6-28-2022-from 1949 to 2019.png (25 kB)
Google Ngrams Rule of Law Data 6-28-2022 from 1949 to 2019

Google Ngrams without democracy 6-28-2022 with Chinese translations.png (69 kB)
Google Ngrams Without Democracy 6-28-2022 with Chinese Translations