Peking — Since May, China's judges and their assistants have been holding court in gold-brimmed hats and shiny new uniforms. This is the latest in a series of moves by the Communist government to give credibility to its claims to a new era of ''rule by law'' in China.
Ten years ago, Cultural Revolution-style justice was dispensed by blue-suited Maoists at mass sentencing rallies. The need to ''mobilize the masses'' eradicated the right to defense or a formal trial.
''In those days,'' says Zhang Si-zhi, vice-chairman of the Peking Bar Association, ''the core of the problem was the attitude of the defendant, not the seriousness of the case. . . . A defendant had to admit all charges against him, no matter if they were true or fake. If he denied them, he was declared guilty. It was impossible to avoid mistakes and frame-ups with such a system.''
Mr. Zhang says China's current court procedures - introduced with the 1982 Constitution - guard against such mistakes. But he is willing to admit that the odd, undeserved execution may still take place in China.
Zhang says the reports of thousands of executions during last year's anticrime campaign have not discredited the current leadership's efforts to restore rule by law and institute proper legal procedures.
As part of the anticrime campaign, the death penalty was approved for a wider range of cases, including rape, serious economic crimes, and ''counterrevolutionary'' activity. The time for appeal was reduced from 10 to five days after sentencing. And the requirement to inform the Peking Supreme People's Court that an execution had been ordered was altered to allow notification after the sentence was carried out.
''This was done to ensure all serious criminal cases could be dealt with quickly, but all formalities (required by) the legal procedures were still carried out,'' says Zhang, who denies there was an actual ''campaign'' against crime.
Since the post-Mao leadership under Deng Xiaoping decided to reestablish a proper legal system, codes of criminal law, criminal procedure, and civil procedure have been enacted. Deng has stressed ''rule by law'' and reforms to abolish the ''martial court'' that sentenced people during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Public trials and the right of defense have been reinstated.
Despite these moves, questions are still raised about the adequacy of China's legal system. Because most universities and tertiary institutions were closed during the Cultural Revolution, China has a chronic shortage of lawyers. In Peking there are only about 400 lawyers (and some work part-time). That is 1 for every 10,000 citizens, compared with 1 for every 5,000 inhabitants in Tokyo. In all of China, there are just 13,000 lawyers.
''In Peking we are aiming for a thousand lawyers as soon as possible.'' And as for the rest of China, ''Comrade Deng Xiaoping has said he would like to see a rank of hundreds of thousands of lawyers,'' says Mr. Zhang.
It wasn't until 1979 that moves were taken to standardize legal training in China. Now China's reopening to the outside world means it needs more specialized training for its lawyers - especially in corporate law.
Already, 4,000 corporations have hired legal advisers, and at least three institutions were set up in Peking recently to train lawyers to deal with foreign firms and the legal complications arising from their activities in China.
Since 1979, Chinese enterprises have entered contracts with foreign companies for compensation trade, equity joint ventures, co-production, and technology transfer. This year the 3M Company is expected to set up in Shanghai the first wholly foreign-owned enterprise to be established in China since 1949.
But many foreign firms are deterred from investing in China because it lacks a comprehensive commerical code. Chinese authorities refuse to accept that the law of a foreign country should govern what happens in China, and most foreign parties will not accept the incomplete and elusive body of laws that the Chinese have so far enacted in relation to foreign enterprises in China.