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God, Caesar, and the Chinese Legal System

From the series Our China Stories

Western narratives about China and its church are built on a fundamental, but often unspoken, assumption about the relationship between law and society.

In the words of 17th century English philosopher John Locke, laws are assumed to function among free and equal citizens only “for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and … property.” Restrictive government regulations like those applied to the church in China in recent years grate against these sensibilities.

Rogier Creemers, a specialist in Chinese law at the University of London, addressed this fundamental contradiction in an interview with Jude Blanchette on the CSIS Pekingology podcast, where they discussed Law and the Party in China: Ideology and Organisation, a book Creemers edited with Susan Travaskes.

In response to Blanchette’s question about how Chinese Communist Party ideology influences the way in which law is administered, Creemers brought up the relationship between morality and values in China:

I think one thing that we very often fail to register is that when we’re dealing with the Chinese legal or political system, we’re dealing with a political legal system that has a very interesting difference from our own, which is that all of our Western, you know, European origin, political legal systems developed for the last two millennia in a framework where state and religion operated next to each other. You had institutionalized churches and institutionalized states. And obviously at some point they merge a little bit. There is some overlap, but they are functionally different. The wonderful line in the Bible, “Give unto Caesar, what belongs to Caesar, give unto God, what belongs to God.

This never happens in China, right? The emperor combines always moral authority and worldly authority.  And the Communist Party still does the same. And that really gives a very interesting tinge to a legal system which addresses moral issues in a way that our legal systems don’t.

For Creemers, the Chinese legal system effectively combines the functions of church and state in dictating how people should live their lives.

 [W]e also see it more broadly in terms of the notion that the Chinese Communist Party seems to have where it isn’t just about governing in a way that is legal. It is also about governing in a way that enhances the good life.  It’s not for nothing that we have a commission on spiritual civilization. It’s not for nothing that we have a core socialist value system. And it’s obviously going to be clear that these are going to be introduced into the legal system.

Creemers went on to draw a sharp contrast between the origins of Western and Chinese law:

Our constitutional states are built on the basis of documents that, you know, at some point groups of people sat down to write. And this is a tradition that goes back to Renaissance European notions of public law in order to navigate the prerogatives of first the church and the state and then the different bits of the state where you had kings, emerging parliaments, aristocracy and so on and so forth. China’s evolution is different. . . .

What may appear to Western eyes as a case of severe overreach at the hands of an authoritarian regime is rooted in a fundamental philosophical difference regarding the purpose of law. In the case of China, law exists to serve state interests, which today translates into Xi Jinping’s vision of the China Dream. As Creemers stated in his concluding remarks, “The task of the Chinese government is not to fulfill the law. Rather, it is to use the law as a tool to achieve the stated objective of wealth and power.”

Image credit: Thanasis Papazacharias from Pixabay.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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