WASHINGTON — This month marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most important events in the world's modern history. But a quarter of a century ago, only the participants at the annual plenary meeting of the Chinese Communist Party and a small group of specialists in this country were paying attention.
Yet it was at this gathering that China's Communist Party rejected three decades of Maoist autarky and made the historic decision to reform China's domestic economy along market lines and open up the country to foreign trade and investment. As a result, the economic, political, and cultural well-being of a fifth of the world's population has vastly improved.
To be sure, not everyone in China has done equally well in the course of this transformation. In some places, such as remote rural communities, a few may have even lost ground since 1978. The market reforms, especially in the past few years, along with China's accession two years ago to the World Trade Organization, have also put quite a number of industrial workers out of work.
But the epochmaking Third Plenum of the Eleventh Communist Party 25 years ago has made the Chinese people far freer politically and culturally than they could have dreamed.
In that meeting, China's leaders adopted a legal maxim summed up in a 16-character phrase. Loosely translated, it means: "There must be law on which to rely; where there are laws, they must be followed; in enforcing laws, we must be strict; violations of the laws must be corrected." This, too, was a call to turn away from Maoist antinomianism and the Marxist false hope that the law and the state would wither away. Instead, China began to develop a more modern legal order better suited to the needs of its ambitious economic development plans.
By July 1979, China had enacted its first criminal law and criminal procedure. More surprisingly, it also promulgated the Sino- Foreign Equity Joint Venture Law, allowing foreign investors to set up enterprises in China with majority foreign ownership in order to kick-start China's economy and to bring in modern management practices. No other socialist country up to that time had made such a dramatic pitch for foreign capital or conceded so much in order to obtain it.
Of course, the legal development of China over that past quarter century has not traced a smooth trajectory. The massacre in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 was probably the lowest ebb in this arena, particularly in contrast to the far happier news that emanated from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union shortly afterward with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Individual political prisoners, disfavored religious and ethnic groups, and ordinary citizens continue to experience abuse and persecution, sometimes even costing their lives.
Nevertheless, China's legal order is far better now than it was even five or 10 years ago. If nothing else, its opening to the outside world has meant that we know far more about these cases of abuse and have more avenues to exert pressure and to bring relief.
Furthermore, its leaders, beginning with Deng in the late 1970s and continuing with all his successors, have discovered that some legal development and constraints on the party and state are essential to the achievement of their economic goals. This legalization has required them to employ the services of many more reform-minded legal specialists, transforming the legal order in a number of aspects and in certain directions different from those the leadership might have desired.
While China has a way to go before becoming a "country ruled by law" (a goal enshrined in its Constitution since 1999), it is a far cry from the totalitarian dictatorship it had been during nearly three decades of Mao's rule. In fact, many of China's critics in the US and abroad complain the pace of change has not been rapid enough. Some continue to argue for broad sanctions. Certainly, in the wake of events such as Tiananmen in 1989, there may be some role for limited sanctions to mark the clear boundaries of acceptable behavior under international norms.
However, there is a danger of overreaching here. China is now a party to most of the international human rights covenants. It enjoys membership in all major international organizations. In contrast to its position before the 1990s, it no longer dismisses human rights criticisms of its actions as "unwarranted interference in China's internal affairs." It does, however, sometimes produce its own stinging rebukes to reports such at the US State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, providing its own inventory of this country's failings.
All of this engagement is, on the balance, a positive development - for China, for the US, and for the rest of the world. In retrospect, it is astounding to contemplate.
• James V. Feinerman is the director of the Asian law and policy studies program at the Georgetown University Law Center.