Law Review

Moffat County Court Judge Mary Lynne James travels to China to study its legal system


China's transition to a new legal system has most of the Western world watching, including Moffat County Court Judge Mary Lynne James, who missed celebrating the 2002 New Year to get a first-hand look at the changes.

James and her son left for China on Dec. 31, 2001. They crossed the international dateline and landed on Jan. 2.

The flight attendants didn't even wake them to celebrate, James said.

She signed up for the trip through a business that gives tours for professionals -- this one was for those in the legal field.

"Their business is to put together special tours that have some kind of specialty professional education," she said.

New leadership means changes to China's legal system and James said seeing the change was interesting.

In the mid-'90s the country began redrafting its legal system, which, for one thing, meant eliminating a presumption of guilt in those arrested for alleged crimes. But the change wasn't truly westernized. Instead of entering a courtroom with a presumption of innocence, the Chinese have no presumptions at all.

"The legal system is just one way the country is moving with others into the 21st Century," James said. "In our criminal system, there are many more protections for defendants. In China, you don't get an attorney if you can't afford one unless it's a capital case."

The judicial system isn't independent from the political system. There are no jury trials and judges can be fired for making a "politically wrong" decision.

Major cities in China have evolved into major metropolises that, with the exception of the signage and the architecture, could be any major city in the world, she said.

"Shanghai could hold its own with any city in the world," she said.

The farther you move from the cities, the more foreign the country feels and the more similar it is to the stereotypical China.

James spent hours on buses but the time wasn't wasted. A lecture was given during each trip about the changes to the country's legal system.

"It was 12 hours of law college type lectures," she said.

China was celebrating the new year, so the participants didn't get to see any court proceedings, but they met with area lawyers, law students and professors.

"We got their view of our system and their view of their system," James said.

One aspect the Chinese didn't understand was how American attorneys could remain civil -- even be friends -- during and after a trial.

"In their civil system, it's a battle. It's war," James said. "There, if someone's your adversary, they're always your adversary."

In Communist China, there are no private landowners. All residents have a lease from the Chinese government.

The country is ready for a change but not willing to give up everything.

"China's emphasis on the importance of family is something none of them want to give up," James said.

But residents do want to give up the Communist policies implemented under the leadership of Mao Tse-Tung.

James said even as tourists, they heard the horror stories.

"There's a whole generation who missed out on a regular education," she said. "Instead, they spent their days memorizing Mao Tse-Tung's little red book."

Because there are so many "uneducated" people in China, unemployment is a growing problem.

"They have been a country where everyone has been an employee of the government and they have to transition away from that," James said. "The family unit is still a resource for most people."

Many have the chance to study in the United States, but are valuable enough that they can not get exit visas from their government.

With the elimination of so many government jobs came the elimination of government-provided health care, which also is becoming a problem, James said.

James and her group visited Tiannamen Square. They were told if they saw any demonstrations, they were to return to the bus immediately because if they were taken into custody, that could be a big problem.

The age of technology is what is helping to bring the country forward and westernize it.

"You cannot keep a country backward when it has access to the rest of the world," James said.

All the hotels James stayed at had access to global news stations and had Internet rooms.

"The availability of world products was amazing," James said. "It's a country that has really opened up."

In the cities, most people were wearing clothes from the West and Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's restaurants are abundant.

"It was strange seeing the Colonel with Chinese lettering underneath," James said.

But not everything was like home. The group had a chance to walk through a Chinese marketplace where meat was sold. The variety was endless and included snakes, white duck heads, eel, squid and dogs.

Alive or dead.

"There were booths of Chinese fast food -- grilled skewers of beef, chicken, little birds or bugs," James said. "It was all very clean and very appetizing."

She didn't try the more exotic fare, but looking back wishes she had.

All public toilets in China are ranked by stars -- one could use a five-star facility. Though the food was good, all chicken and fish entrees were served with the heads on.

"Here, you have to ask for chopsticks. There you have to ask for a fork," she said.

Desert always was watermelon.

Extended families were seen everywhere but in each case each only had one small child. The Chinese can apply for exemptions from the one-child-per-family rule but, for the most part, forced abortions are still a way of life.

For James, China was just the first step in visiting in another country to learn about and compare legal systems. She hopes to have a similar experience in Russia soon.

"It really makes you appreciate the system you do have," she said. "When I start to take things for granted, something from the trip comes back and I don't take it for granted anymore."

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