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Joan Liu has been a librarian with New York University Law Library for five years. She is responsible for the Library management of acquisitions and serials, and functions as the liaison on China law research. She maintains China Legal Sources which contains a research guide on Chinese law, a bibliography of Chinese legal classics, and other related resources. She is an active member of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) and currently serves as the AALL Representative to the Serials Industry System Advisory Committee (SISAC), the Chair of the Asian Law Interest Group with FCIL-SIS, and the Chair of the Serials Committee with TS-SIS. Joan holds a MLS (U.S.) and a LLM (China).
In a broad sense, “China law” should comprise four components: (1) the laws of the People’s Republic of China (PRC); (2) the laws of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), a former British colony which was handed over back to PRC in 1997, but still inherits the common law system; (3) the laws of Macao Special Administrative Region (Macao SAR), a former Portugal colony which was handed over back to China in 1999, but has kept the original legal system; and (4) the laws of Taiwan which, as the remaining part of the former Republic of China, has developed a distinct legal system different from the mainland China after the Nationalist lost the civil war to the Communist in 1949. However, “China law” is commonly referred to the laws of the PRC, which began to be constituted in 1949 when the new government was founded. This article will mainly review the legal resources of the laws of PRC in electronic formats, including databases, websites, CD-ROM products, and other non-print materials, but not traditional printing resources. The legal resources of the laws of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan will be discussed in later articles.
Legal family and structure: When Rene David was reviewing the Chinese codification of 1930s in his Major Legal System in the World Today: an Introduction to the Comparative Study of Law, he concluded that “Chinese law…can be ranked within the family of laws deriving from the Romanist tradition”. Today, the laws of the PRC in large degree still share the characteristics of the civil law system rather than the common law. This can be partly attributed to the Europeanization in China during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, as David pointed out. This is also owing to the inheritance of the Chinese legal tradition: the statutes or codes (written law) were highly valued even back to the Qin Dynasty in 221-207 BC.
Though the Chinese legal system is claimed to be distinct from all other legal systems, jurists of the PRC follow rules of the civil law family. The legislation of the PRC reflects a structural similarity to countries in the Romano-Germanic family, German and France, for instance. Moreover, the Chinese jurists value legal doctrines and hold written law in high esteem; concrete judicial decisions are not officially considered as a source of law.
Source of the laws of the PRC: In retrospective review, the formation and progression of the modern legal system in mainland China had been disturbed by a series of successive political movements from 1949 to 1976. Before the Criminal Code was enacted in 1979, the Constitution Law passed in 1954 was the only statute for 25 years. The governmental operation largely relied on the policies and orders of the Party. The rule of law was not constructed until the massive legislation enactment from the late 1980s after the Party decided to adopt the “open-door policy” to develop the market economic system in late 1970s. Since then, the skyrocketing development of the economics has led to substantial legislative activities that have laid the foundation of the modern legal system. Now, China has established a comprehensive scheme of legislation including national laws, administrative regulations, and local laws.
Among the sources of the laws of the PRC, the statutes enacted by the National People’s Congress (NPC, China’s Congress), including the constitutional laws, civil codes, and criminal codes, have the highest authority. Administrative regulations by the State Council (China’s cabinet) shall not be in conflict with the statutes. The decided cases by various levels of judicial institutions are not official sources of law, though decisions of the Supreme People’s Court are factually used as a guideline in the practice of lower courts when the provision of law is in obscurity. Local laws and regulations are enacted by provincial legislatures and governments.
As a consequence of the underdevelopment of the legal system, the legal research and legal information supporting system were primitive in China before 1980s. Unlike the United States and other developed counties, where the legal research and practice are supported by sound legal information system, Chinese legal professional were backed up by an exceptional insufficiency of legal resources.
Twenty years ago, there was no concept of the legal information profession in China and few experienced and competent legal information personnel were able to assist with fundamental legal research. Moreover, few legal publishers existed before the 1970s because no systematic legislation and legal research existed. Though legal publishers were enlivened after the effect of the rule of law in late 1980s, standardized and advanced techniques for organizing legal information, such as codification, indexing, cataloging, and superseding, had not yet been implemented by the legal publishers. Additionally, all legal institutions had only a meager budget for acquiring materials. Even law schools had very scanty funds to amass a legal collection. Back in the 1980s, law textbooks were the primary sources (the sole source for some subjects of law) for legal study. To carry out research in thesis work, a graduate student had to allot a significant amount of time to travel around the country to collect the data and materials. Within the agencies of law enforcement, the scarcity of legal materials was much worse.
For a long period of time, the difficulty in accessing legal information was the major obstruction to conducting legal research in almost every legal institution, and thus hindered the construction of a modern legal system and directly undermined the realization of the rule of law in China.
The reforms in both economics and law starting in the late 1970s have apparently impacted the advancement of the law. The demands for a modern legal information system arose hereafter. The exchange of legal professionals between China and the rest of the world has enlarged the vision of Chinese jurists. A large number of Chinese legal researchers and practitioners have been offered opportunities to study law in the U.S. and other developed countries. They have been trained to utilize legal information to succeed thorough legal research. On the other hand, jurists out of China have keenly impelled the progression of legal information access in China. The U.S. Committee on Legal Educational Exchange with China (CLEEC), for instance, was one of the first of a small number of organizations that not only provide young Chinese law teachers opportunities to have legal training in the U.S., but also supported Chinese legal educational institution with hardware, facilities, and training. Westlaw offers free access to students and faculty at Beijing University Law School. Ebsco, Dialog, and the U.S. information agencies offer university students free retrieval to their databases as well. Thus, the idea of constructing and developing legal information system has begun to be embedded into the larger scheme of the modern Chinese legal system.
Furthermore, the rapid development of computer and Internet technology from 1990s provides unprecedented opportunities to further build China’s legal information system. The Internet has very quickly become a unique vehicle for legal information storage and access in China. Aggressive building of telecommunication infrastructures by the government has hastened broader Internet access, which results in a revolution of the entire arena of the legal information system.
From Beijing to Shanghai, from the headquarters of leading online services to law school computer laboratories, you would see a similar hectic scenario: young, energetic, and skillful graduates are busy with data entering, scanning or typing, and programming for the production of legal databases. Every founder or organizer of online services or databases is confident in their qualification to build the best databases. Their aim is to catch up to Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis online services. In addition, more and more law schools, legal institutions, and even law firms are proposing to create databases and e-law services. Law publishers have launched e-versions of their publication on the websites one after another. Legal professionals are constructing informal platforms for sturdy telecommunication. On the other hand, the legal databases on China law produced by sophisticated western legal publishers, and the resources on Chinese legal research provided by research group out of China, supplement a significant amount of information to the current framework.
The endeavors by people from in and out of China have led to the emergence of a virtual China law library in cyberspace. The vast availability of Chinese legal resources, including full text law databases (commercial and non-commercial), online legal publications, websites with research tools including library online catalogs, legal services and the jurists networks, is certainly exhilarating. However, these uncoordinated efforts by different forces have unavoidably yielded some negative results (which will be discussed later).
Armed with the technology of the digital age, will China leap over the predicament of legal information access, which was promised on a printing-based information structure, to be a full partner on legal information exchange with other parts of the world?
Commonly, legal sources are classified into primary and secondary two categories. Due to the complexity and uniqueness of the Chinese online legal resources, in this article, I tentatively classify the online resources on the laws of the PRC into four types and discuss them accordingly. However, how to classify the online Chinese legal resources, how many categories should they be divided into to, are subjective decions. For instance, a number of websites collect not only comprehensive links and annotations to other web resources, but also contain databases of full-text laws and/or publish online journals.
Legal Online Services are commercial services that provide computer-assisted legal research (CALR) systems to legal professionals. These services usually consist of comprehensive databases with systematic updating process, standardized data retrieval systems, and powerful technical support, and are operated by professional information institutions. Electronic publications are another type of databases that cover specific subjects and topics. While Online Legal Services focus on primary legal sources such as statutes, regulations, case reports, and other core legal documents, e-journals supply the most current briefing on changes in China law. The remaining online resources are grouped as “research tools and law related sites.” Though some of these websites may also maintain databases covering significant amounts of full-text law, the databases usually lack systematic updating and standardization. Thus, they are regarded as mainly providing bibliographic and directorial information. All three types of resources above are accessed via the Internet. CD-ROM in vernacular are listed as a separate category. Because of the immaturity of the Internet infrastructure in China, CD-ROM is and will continue to be an important medium in Chinese legal information access in the near future, although CD-ROMs have been losing their attraction in the U.S. and other developed countries.
Existing Online Legal Services on Chinese law in general have the features of modern information storage and retrieval systems, though comprehensive CALR systems similar to WestLaw and Lexis-Nexis have yet to be developed.
- The China Law Retrieving System is provided by Chinalawinfo Co., Ltd., which was formally founded in the summer of 1999. The retrieval system has both English and Chinese versions that can be accessed via its website. The access policy of the databases is the same for both versions. The full text of Laws & Regulations is a fee-based service and the materials are updated biweekly. The Free Law provides free access to some national statutes and regulations. The Cases offers free access to a list of selected cases that are confirmed by the Supreme People’s Courts. The system also provides the capability of keyword search to the index of the “four big gazettes”, namely the Gazette of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress, the Gazette of the State Council, the Gazette of Supreme People’s Court, and the Gazette of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. Through the index search the user can retrieve the titles of the documents. The indices are archived for three years. The Index of Law Journals can be searched by title, author, and subject and the coverage of the journals is from 1992 to 1998. At this time, five key law journals are covered by this index.
- The CLRSonline is a recently launched online service on China law and produced by Asia Law & Practice. The electronic version of its publications can be accessed via the web by paid subscription, which includes China Law & Practice and The China Law Reference Service (loose-leaf service) — two major resources for newly enacted laws of the PRC in English. The databases are equipped with advanced searching capabilities.
- Law Online
- This commercial online legal service is formerly known as the Law-On-Line/Asia-Pacific On-Line database system which was originally created by the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong, and recently merged with the Great China Web. Law-On-Line offers in bilingual The National Law and Regulations at both central and local government level from 1949 to current and the Legal News and Information. It also contains full-text electronic version of the Asian Commercial Law Review and full-text vernacular China Legal Daily. Another acclaimed database, Civil Litigation Court Case, collects the cases from all courts including Supreme Court, District Court, and Bankruptcy, from 1989 to current. The databases can be accessed by various search approaches via its website.
- Lexis-Nexis Online Service contains a database on China laws and regulations of the PRC. The content of the database consists of selected laws and regulations from the PRC. The materials were translated by the Chinalaw Assisted Legal Research Center, Beijing University in 1980s, and have not been updated since January 1994. The e-version of Hong Kong Law Journal is also available at Lexis-Nexis. The searching process via Lexis-Nexis’s web interface is pleasant.
- Sinolaw is the first commercial online legal service in China that provides services in English. The database model of Sinolaw has been taken as the template for other online databases in English, such as Chinalawinfo. This Internet-based database is run by a Chinese information service agency in Beijing and consists of Sinolaw Legal Online (SLO) and China Government Guide (CGG) two parts. Though SLO emphasizes commercial and business laws, it comprises basic laws, major statutes, and regulations of the PRC as well. The service provides the English translation of each newly enacted major law within ten days. CGG contains biographic information about the central governmental agencies, the Party, the National Congress, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. The full-text database of both parts can be accessed via browsing directory tree or searching keywords of the titles of the laws.
- World News Connection
- This is an U.S. official foreign news service that covers extensive reports on politics and laws of the PRC. It collects most of the important sources, including Daily Report China which was published by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and was taken over by WNC in 1996. Full-text of some of the laws of the PRC are available in this database. The documents can be searched via various searching methods.
- China Daily
- This is the online version of the Chinese official daily newspaper China Daily which covers legal news among others. The online database allows free access in full text and can be searched by keywords. The contents are archived for about three months.
- China Legal Change
- This is an electronic journal on China law published by Legal Support Services Limited bi-weekly. The journal focuses on the discussion of current development of Chinese law. The service also offers full text in Chinese of the new laws, regulations, and interpretations publicized by central and local government bodies. The online services have subscription fees.
- Legal Forum
- This electronic publication is acting as a bridge between the lawyers in China and the Great Britain. It is associated with Beijing University Law School, Tsinghua University Law School, The College of Law, and SOAS Briefing Office in London. The section of Legal Articles publishes research articles on the laws of mainland China and Hong Kong. The Reference section collects major China laws in both English and Chinese but the access is restricted to members.
- The Peoples Daily (mirrosite as http://www.peopledaily.net/english/)
- The Peoples Daily is an official paper of the Party and contains reports on legislation and legal development. New law is usually first released in full text in this newspaper. The newspaper is archived and the database provides multiple search options.
- South China Morning Post
- This is a Hong Kong based newspaper which reports a considerable amount of news on the legal practice of the laws of PRC and Hong Kong. The database has advanced search capabilities.
- Access China
- The Access China website contains a section called Laws & Regulations that lists some laws on Chinese-Foreign Joint Venture, Intellectual Property, and other business related laws and regulations. The listing is not up-to-date, however.
- China Law Net
- This highly praised listserv offers a forum for legal professionals to discuss Chinese law and practice. The archived discussion and other related information can be accessed via the website.
- China Today: Law, Justice and Legal Services
- This website is created and maintained by InfoPacific Development Co., Canada and Kompass International Information Service Co. Ltd., China. Available databases cover the laws and regulation of the PRC, and directorial information on governmental agencies and judicial institutions. The contents are not up to date and can only be accessed via browsing. No search functions is supported.
- It is a free accessible Internet resource which collects major Chinese laws in both Chinese and English and some legal research literatures. The website also contains extensive links to other China law related websites and databases available in the Internet. The contents can be searched using its search engine.
- ChinaOnline is developed by ChinaOnline, LLC. The Legal section covers the full text of the laws and regulations of the PRC in both English and Chinese and is accessible free via the website. The databases are arranged according to subjects, including Business & Corporate, Foreign Relations & Trade, Information Technology – Telecommunications, Financial & Tax Related, and other laws. The contents are up to date, but not searchable.
- This directory of Internet sites covers some China law related websites.
- Chinese Contract Law Forum
- This site is specifically on Chinese contract law and offers a free access to full text of Contract law up to date. It also contains briefs and discussion on the subject.
- Directory of law firms
- The Hieros Gamos’s website compiles a directory of law firms which collect a list of some large law firms in China.
Research Guides on China Law
Internet Chinese Legal Research Center is created and maintained by Wei Luo, a law librarian at Washington University. This website compiles a list of links and guides for doing legal research on China laws. The content covers laws of the PRC, Hong Kong Special Administrative region, and Taiwan. Each link is annotated.
China Legal Sources is part of New York University Law Library online resources, which consists of a research guide on China law at NYU, a bibliography of Chinese legal classics, and comprehensive links to other China law related websites.
Chinese Law at WashLaw Web is created and maintained by Washburn University School of Law Library. It links to various Internet sources on China law including full text of the Constitution Law of the PRC and some general introduction to the laws of the PRC.
Government Agencies and Other Organizations
The website of CIETAC & CMAC & BCC contains official information on China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, Maritime Arbitration Commission, and Beijing Conciliation Center. It provides introductions and states arbitration rules for each agency.
The English version of the website of the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China is still under construction. The currently available information includes an introduction about the agency and the full text of Patent Law of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese version of the website contains all Intellectual property related laws, regulations, and other legal documents. It also provides useful statistic data about Chinese IP process. No updating information on the database is available and the databases are not searchable.
The website of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation has an bilingual introduction to the agency. The Laws and Regulations section provides free access to full text of laws related to foreign trade and business.
The website of the United States-China Business Council covers information on US-Chinese business related agreements and regulation. The resources are grouped into several sections including trade, foreign investment, and the economy of China. It also provides statistics and analysis on these topics.
Legal Publishers and Vendors
China Books and Periodicals is a San Francisco based book jobber. It accepts subscriptions for Chinese legal serials.
The webpage of Asia Law & Practice provides significant bibliographic information on China law which is a valuable resource for acquiring research materials on Chinese law.
The website of China International Book Trading Corporation, the sole Chinese official distributor for the publishers of the PRC, offers information on legal publication in China. This Chinese jobber handles standing orders for the laws of the PRC and accepts subscription for all Chinese law reviews and law journals. The website has both English and Chinese version.
Guide to Doing Business in/with China has bibliographic information on a set of Guide to Doing Business in/with China, but the contents of the set is not retrievable from the site. The set covers laws of the PRC from 1949 to current, in both paper and CD-ROM.
- This online service is part of China Economic Information (CEI) networks which is hosted by the State Information Center, a central government agency. Its legal online information system contains the most comprehensive and authoritative Chinese legal resource. The databases are available online or in CD-ROM format.
The Internet-based databases have two parts, the free accessible The National Laws that includes the national laws, regulations of State Council, and the judicial interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, from 1949 to present, and the fee-based The New Laws & Regulations Online Searching which contains the most recent statutes, regulations and rules from both central and local government level, and the judicial interpretation. The Legal Interpretation section collects legal explanation and commentaries from jurists and other experts. The Lawyers Directory section is a yellow page for law firms in China. It also contains abstracts for articles published in People’s Court Journal. All of the databases on secondary resources are free of charge.
The searching capability of the service via the web is primitive: the databases can only be searched by keywords of the title of the law, the enactment date of the law, and the name of the legislative body. The contents of the laws are not indexed, therefore, are not searchable.
- The database was originally formed at the Law Department at Beijing University in 1980’s. It was a pioneer endeavor to utilize computer technology for doing legal research in China. At the beginning, the database covered only the laws of the PRC on intellectual property and antitrust. After Legal Information Center of Beijing University was established, the database was greatly expanded and started to provide comprehensive legal online services. In the summer of 1999, it was formally incorporated as Chinalawinfo Co., Ltd. and released its English version.
The new Chinalawinfo on the Internet comprises databases and links to legal resources world widely. With the same structure as CEI, CHINALAW Retrieving System covers the national laws, regulations, judicial interpretations and judicial proceedings, laws and regulations of local congress and government, treaties and agreements, foreign laws, and international treaties. Among them, access to the New Laws which contains the full text of the recently promulgated laws, administrative regulations, and judicial interpretations at the national level, is a fee-based service. Major National Laws is accessible without a fee. Other free information includes Selected Case Reports which provides the full text of major cases in different jurisdictions, the online catalog of the Beijing University Law Library, and the Index of Law Journals that covers more than 20 major legal journals and law reviews.
- The Legal Daily
- Legal Daily Online is the online version of the Legal Daily which is published by the Political and Legal Commission of the Central Committee of the Party. It was originally the official paper of the Ministry of Justice and was taken over by the Party at the middle of 1980s when the paper became an influential newspaper. The newspaper is archived up to 6 months and searchable. The most valuable column is “Release of New Laws” which publishes the full text of new laws, and contains legal interpretation from legislature, judicial, and administrative agencies.
- The People’s Court Paper
- The electronic version of the newspaper is published by the Supreme People Court. It is a good source for the Supreme People Court’s new decisions, juridical interpretation, and policies. The content of the newspaper is searchable.
- The People’s Daily
- This is the online version of the official newspapers of the Party. It includes the People’s Daily, People’s Daily Overseas Edition, People’s Huadong News, Market, and Global News Digest, etc. The databases archive the newspapers for about 6 months and are accessible free.
- China Judge Web Site
- This resourceful webpage is maintained by a young judge in China. The site compiles sources on China law study and practice including judicial reports, a brief catalog of major law journals, and legal research articles. But only part of the content is searchable.
- This site is developed by Zhonglv Legal Information Automation Services which is affiliated with the Ministry of Justice. The site publishes legal news and legal treads, and collects new laws, current laws, laws on foreign relation, and local laws.
- Chinese Legal System
- This legal Internet service is developed and run by the Law Society of Fujian Province and Fujian Bamin Telecom IT Co., Ltd. It provides legal news, introduction of governmental agencies, and current laws and regulations. The searching module for the databases will be provided in the future. On the Legal Aids section, it offers free legal counseling by volunteer law experts; various samples of legal forms are also provided.
- Counsel of China Online
- Counsel of China Online was established by the Dalian Chen De Hui Law Firm in Liaoning Province. It offers free access to its law database via the web. The database contains all newly released laws, regulations, and other legal documents for 6 months and archives them afterwards. There are three sections in the archived Law Database: National Laws, Foreign Laws, and Treaties. The databases can be searched using keywords, subject, or the enactment date of the laws. The service is available in English, French, Japanese, and Russian.
- Full text of laws in Shanghai Window
- The Shanghai Window is the website covering stories on the news and economics. Its law section contains the full text of some statutes.
- Governmental Information and Government Online Project
- China Education and Research Network (CerNet) compiles comprehensive links to the websites of the administrative branch of the PRC. It has information on the State of Council and other ministries, and the structure and the responsibilities of each institution.
Government Online Project is a platform for all governmental information. The site is searchable.
- Custom Enforcement on Intellectual Property Protection
- This site has a complete guide on Custom enforcement of the PRC. The site provides statistics on customs and some samples of custom forms, and lists related laws, regulation, rules, and treaties in full text. The content is not searchable and no update information is available.
- Laws and Regulations on security of networking of computer information systems
- Laws and Regulations on security of networking of computer information systems at China Education and Research Network (CerNet) compiles a list of the major laws and regulations on networking and computer information, which are supplied by the Public Security Bureau of Beijing. The database is not up to date.
- Supreme People’s Procuratorate of the PRC
- Supreme People’s Procuratorate of the PRC has an introduction about the Chinese Procuratorate system and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. It collects major national laws, case analysis, and the working reports of the National People’s Congress from 1987 to 2000. The databases are not searchable.
- Library Online Catalogs
- This site contains comprehensive links to online library catalogs nation-wide. In China, the majority of law libraries have adopted library automation system. The card catalogs have been converted into electronic format using integrated library system developed by either domestic or foreign vendors. For instance, the Beijing Library, the national library of the PRC, has developed its own ILS that has also been used by a number of law libraries, while the Shanghai Public Library implements its automation system via the Horizon system from the U.S. Both the national library of China and the Shanghai Public Library have extensive law collections and their bibliographic information is accessible world-wide. Both systems have advanced search capabilities.
Though most of law libraries have finished the retrospective conversion of catalogs from cards to electronic version, only a few of the OPACs are connected to the Internet. Beijing University Law Library online catalog is the first online law library catalog in the Internet. The OPAC can be searched using author, titles, and other basic search approaches.
Directory of Law Firm and Legal Publishers
Law Firm 500 provides news on business and law of China and also has a searchable directory of law firms.
Joint Publishing Co. lists its publication on China law on this site. It is coded in Big 5 format.
Legal Indexes and Abstracts
In China, there is yet no legal index service comparable to the Indexes to Legal Periodicals or Current Index to Legal Periodical in the U.S. Law-Online (in Big 5 coding system) created a mini index for three major law reviews (China Law by the Law Society of China, Journal of China University of Political Science and Law, and Journal of Law by China Academy of Social Science). The index can be searched using author, title, subject, and publication date, however, the index is not up to date.
Legal researchers in China largely rely on the clips of law journals and legal newspapers. The clips are cut and sorted by library staff. Many libraries including the Law Institute of the China Social Science Academy (CASS) and the East China Institute of Politics and Laws have initiated projects to digitize these clips to produce online legal abstracts. However, the progress is sluggish due to the constraints of financial and labor resources.
Chinalawinfo has indexed about five major law journals in English. In its Chinese counterpart, about 20 major law journals are indexed from 1992 to 1998. There is also a mini catalog of law journals that provides detailed bibliographic information on each journal.
Because of the low cost but broad dissemination, CD-ROM has been a well-recognized means for legal publishers to convert their publication from print into electronic format. There are over a dozen institutions in both official and private settings, at both central and local government bases, that produce legal CD-ROM. Among them, only a few law databases became Internet-based services; most of these databases are still only in CD-ROM format.
Some of these databases, such as the Information Retrieval System of Law and Regulations of the Peoples Republic of China produced by the Information Center of the State Council, the National Law and Regulation & Government Agency Information Searching System developed by Shanghai law & Society, and the Reprint of Newspaper and Journals including index and full text articles published by People’s University of China, have been operating very successfully. Both CEI and Chinalawinfo make their CD-ROMs more comprehensive and attractive to users than their online databases via web access. For example, CEI’s 1999 version CD-ROM consists of more than 80 databases with over 60 thousand of legal documents, covering almost all laws and regulations in both national and local level, cases reports, and treaties.
However, even among these acclaimed databases, only the databases created by the State Council are not just well indexed for both the title and contents of the documents, but offer cross-reference between the updated and the obsolete provisions of the law in the retrieval system.
Due to the limitation of the Internet and concerns of being accessed by non-authorized users, the majority of CD-ROM producers have no current plans to port their databases onto the web. However, facing the magnitude of the potential market in cyberspace and under the pressure of competition, this attitude might have to change soon.
In addition to the Chinese domestic CD-ROM production, some western publishers also produce CD-ROMs for their Chinese legal publications, for instance, CCH Australia Ltd. has a CD-ROM version for its China Laws for Foreign Business loose-leaf service.
Coverage of the Contents
The majority of the commercial databases in Chinese vernacular languages described above are supposed to have complete coverage on laws of the PRC from 1949 to present. However, the relative completeness of the coverage of these databases might differ in some aspects. Though both CEI and Chinalaw Retrieving System (CRS or Chinalawinfo) have similar contents and structure, CEI collects more legal documents than CRS. For example, when using the title to search Notary Law in the national law database of both services, CEI gives five hits that include laws and judicial and administrative interpretation, but CRS gives no result. Despite many efforts that have been taken to make the online databases more complete in covering the primary resources, the coverage of the existing online services are still limited. Secondary resources such as references, directorial information, legal literatures and treatises are not yet available in online databases. Moreover, online services in English usually have much a smaller scope in coverage than their Chinese counterpart.
According to the law of the PRC, legal compilation and electronic publishing should be examined, approved, and then published by a specific governmental agency assigned by legislature. The sole lawful publisher for the national laws should be the Legal Affairs Committee of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and the Bureau of Legislative Affaires of the State Council. However, for the purpose of research and study, compilations of laws is also published by non-official publishers such as research institutions and commercial publishers. Due to the lack of adequate quality control on legal publishing, the accuracy and authority of the existing commercial online databases are sometimes doubtful. Furthermore, law databases produced by volunteers or less qualified commercial agency also undermine the reliability and authenticity of the online legal resources.
The modern techniques and standards for organizing information have been overlooked in the production of Chinese legal databases. These online databases, even CEI which is one of the top online legal resources, basically compile a cluster of documents together, instead of organizing these documents as an integrated entity. There are no relationships or cross-references between these documents. For example, no cross-reference is given between a new enacted law and the existing laws or the previous law that is superceded by the new one.
Similar problems can be found in online catalogs. The utilization of online catalogs has freed people from the card catalog, and the Internet has allowed online catalogs to be accessed without the constraints of space and location. However, because of the lack of the professional resources on law librarianship, the immaturity of the domestic automation system, and the financial constraints and staff shortages, most law libraries are unable to follow cataloging standards during the retrospective conversion of card catalogs into the electronic format. Though a number of law libraries utilize the USMARC record, many materials are not fully cataloged according to the standards. The problem will be more distinctive and severe when the local online catalogs are launched on the Internet. In addition, due to different implementation algorithms of the web interface, some online catalog systems only allow the display pf a limited number of results retrieved, so users with remote access to the online catalog would not be able to access the results exhaustively. Moreover, there are several subject classification schedules in China, the major ones are set by the Beijing Library and the Chinese Academia of Science. The unification of the various classification systems will be essential in the future for standardized information access and sharing.
The disorganization is not just manifested in the substance of the online databases, but also is reflected in the composition of the databases. A number of online services strive to create a “one-stop shopping mall” for Chinese legal information, however, the services have lost their simplicity of lay out and appear to be a poorly managed warehouses. Also because of the access problem for the vernacular language, one popular approach is to display the heading in the vernacular language as images in addition to other picture files. This, however, makes the document extremely big and the retrieval process extremely slow.
As the other aspect of weakness of the information organization, the primitiveness of searching capabilities undermines database retrievals. The major online services in Chinese can only be searched using the title of the laws, the date of promulgation, and the legislature. The contents of the law are not indexed and therefore not searchable. For example, both CEI and CRS online databases can only be searched using a combination of the name of the documents and the date of enactment. No keyword search of the content is available, nor advanced Boolean search and nature language search algorithms are implemented, despite both services provide complete searching functions for their CD-ROM products.
All legal resources in Chinese language on the web can be searched via browsers such as Netscape and Explorer. Understanding the coding systems of the Chinese characters is the key to configure the right setting to access vernacular databases. There are several different systems for coding Chinese characters, such as Big5, EACC, GB, HZ, and Unicode. Generally, databases based in Taiwan and Hong Kong are coded in traditional Chinese characters using the Big5 system and databases produced in mainland China, Singapore, and elsewhere adopt the simplified Chinese characters using the GB coding system. EACC is a coding system for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters, which is mainly used by ILS, for instance, INNOPAC. The HZ code system has the same standard as GB and is widely used for web based electronic journals or newspaper. Unicode is not a commonly used code system.
Web browsers usually have plug-ins for reading Chinese characters. However, since many documents are encoded using non-standard code or a mixture of several code systems, in order to have the input capability and ensure the quality of downloading the sturdy searching results, a Chinese reader interface is usually needed, such as the simple reader Unionway or more advanced applications of the Chinese reader interface, such as Cstar, Twinbridge, or NJStar.
Output or Downloading
Although downloading from online databases can be carried out with a Chinese reader application, the buggy characters due to non-standard coding are sometimes unavoidable. Reload or refresh is needed after changing the configuration for different Chinese coding systems. Downloading directly to the printer demands a printer with a big buffer, and usually is time consuming.
The idea of establishing a Chinese CALR system was initiated in the 1980s by the Law Department of Beijing University. The goal of the initiation was to create a Chinese version of a Westlaw-like database on Chinese law and to provide comprehensive resources for legal research. The excellence of Westlaw and its peers has influenced Chinese jurists so deeply that the Westlaw pattern has been regarded as the model for Chinese online legal services.
Because of the deficiency in legal resources in 1980s, this Eastlaw Myth was beyond the imagination of most of Chinese legal professionals. The swift progress of the construction of legal information systems in recent years brings the hope of the realization of the myth. However, optimistic people might overlook one fact: the new cyberspace medium can accelerate the construction of the legal information system in China, but it cannot change the nature and the substances of the databases. The online resources are merely the reflection of the legal sources in print format. Therefore, the central issue is really how to establish a legal information system rather than how to establish an online legal system. The following perspectives are crucial in the realization of a modern legal information system in China.
First, the standardization in all aspects of the legal information process should be stressed. Systematic codification will be the most important step in consolidating the legislation (written law) and processing superceding approach. For legal publishing, instead of purely compiling codes, statutes, regulations, their focus should be on taking up more research tools for primary resources, such as indexing and digesting. These research tools commonly adopted by the western publishers have not been set up in Chinese legal publishing.
Current awareness services, another important part of the legal information structure, should be accentuated. In addition to the initial efforts of Law-Online and Chinalawinfo to create an index of legal periodicals, Reprint of Newspaper and Journals published by People’s University of China has appended index for legal articles. However, the service has limited coverage. Furthermore, this publication has a major problem: the Reprint does not have the permission of the original publishers for reprinting. Some leading law journals have been protesting this infringement of the copyright. Thus, the future of this service might not be bright.
Additionally, as an outcome of the advent of the Internet, the globalization of information exchange and sharing will result in more and more fusion of the common law and the civil law system. Therefore, Chinese jurists should keep an open mind to appreciate the virtues of other legal tradition, for instance, considering formalizing case law as a legal source in China. At the least, systematic case reporting and analysis should be emphasized for the moment in the construction of a modern legal information system in China. The online version of Taiwan statutes sets a good illustration: for the articles of the statute, the online database provides not only the legislative history and the judicial and administrative interpretation, but also the judicial decisions.
Last but not least, the government ought to maintain consistency in the policy of legal information storage, dissemination, and sharing. The government is the largest producer of legal information in China and provides official resources on regulations, rules, interpretations, statistics, new trends, and other information on various aspects.
To the government, the Internet is a knife with two blades: on one side, it is such an medium for the government to effectively store and distribute governmental information to the public and to improve the efficiency of the government operation; on the other side, virtual access means an increase in the difficulties for the government to control and censor information dissemination. Facing such a dilemma, the Chinese government has to think about the balance between gains and losses.
A recent regulation of the PRC on the Internet, Administration of the Maintenance of Secrets in the International Networking of Computer Information Systems Provisions, that was promulgated by the State Secrecy Bureau on January 25, 2000, reflected the desire of the government to control Internet access. Thus, whether the construction of the legal information in China is able to move beyond the border is an uncertain issue. If the progress of building a modern legal information system in China is hampered by governmental control, it will be a great pity for the Chinese legal society.