The last few years have seen a proliferation of programs by Western states and international agencies designed, in broad terms, to promote reforms in the Chinese judicial system. What is not clear, however, is whether there has been systematic thinking about the precise goals to be sought in these and other projects, whether these goals are appropriate, and indeed whether their achievement can even be ascertained in some measurable way. This paper is an attempt to think about what we know, what we might want to know, and what we can know about China's judicial system, broadly defined.
A key finding of this paper is that information about China's judicial system, even in the form of reliable and representative statistics, is not always what it seems to be. In other words, without a deeper understanding of the actual functioning of China's courts and other legal institutions, it is very easy to look for the wrong type of information and to misinterpret the information we have. Like the drunk in the joke who looked for his lost car keys under the streetlamp because the light was better there, we can be tempted to overvalue the importance of features of China's judicial system that can be measured by easily obtainable data. Thus, a priority in an empirical research agenda at this stage of our understanding should be further research into the actual functioning of China's various legal institutions so that we can have a better idea of what questions to ask.
Beyond Common Knowledge: Empirical Approaches to the Rule of Law 164 (Erik G. Jensen & Thomas C. Heller eds., 2003)