Seven lawyers from the People's Republic of China were honored on Saturday during a luncheon held at the Highland Hotel on Connecticut Avenue. The arrival of the Chinese Lawyers Observation Group marks the first official visit by a native legal team since mainland China fell to Mao Tse-tung and the People's Republic of China was founded in October 1949.
Led by Xu Hegao, director of the International Law Research Department of the Institute of Jurisprudence of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the group made a beachhead in New York City before travelling to Washington. They are being hosted by New York lawyer and Chinese legal specialist Donald Paragon. The trip was financed privately.
The purposes of the journey are to observe American legal procedures and investigate techniques of instruction in major law schools. Here in Washington, the team members plan to meet with senior Chinese officials at the Embassy, and have conferences scheduled with the assistant attorney general and with members of the Supreme Court.
"Since the resumption of Chinese-American diplomatic relations, we must come to know and understand your legal system," explained Hegao. "We understand that here in America you have federal, state and even municipal legal systems which are very confusing to us."
An organized legal apparatus is just on the comeback in China, after decades during which the legal profession was viewed unfavorably from on high. Mao's Cultural Revolution left the legal system in a shambles, and now, according to Paragon, "The Chinese seek a more formalized criminal and civil procedure."
During the Cultural Revolution, the courts in China were used for educational purposes. Judges seldom heard cases in an organized setting, chosing instead to make house calls and settle disputes on the spot. Most legal decisions were gleaned from interpretations of Maoist thought, and opportunites for abuse and lack of uniformity existed.
"Until 1976 many abuses characterized our legal system," Hegao said. "Many were prosecuted without due process of law." Apparently those days are over in China, and legal experts are drawing up a new civil code, copies of which should soon begin to circulate throughout the country for final revisions and suggestions.
Zhu Qiwu, interpreter for the group and a law professor in China who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University in England, said the new civil code is very important for the "protection of citizens from illegal intrusion." Nonetheless, the proposed Chinese civil code includes some chapters that would be considered very intrusive here. Recently the legal age for marriage in China was raised two years. Now a man must be 22 years old and a woman 20 before application for a marriage license can be contemplated.
There are only about 3,000 certified lawyers in China now, and about 1,000 of them are women. Women are accorded full opportunities to become lawyers, and a few have risen through the ranks to become judges. The Chinese hope that the modernization and expansion of their legal training system will result in one million lawyers by the end of the century.