The authoritarian nature of their political regimes has always brought Russia and China together. This was true even before Russia’s “pivot to the East” back in 2014, but since Moscow entered into a conflict with the West that year, the tendency has only grown stronger. It seems that in recent years, cooperation between China and Russia has expanded into the realm of lawmaking. This is something that has been commented on even by senior officials, such as Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, who noted that three years after Russia introduced a law toughening the restrictions on foreign nongovernmental organizations, China had devised a similar law. 

Such convergences have given rise to suggestions that Russia and China are assimilating each other’s laws with the aim of aligning their legal systems. But analysis of legislative initiatives undermines that theory. Both China and Russia prefer to follow countries with mature justice systems. If they do study each other’s legislation, it’s out of practical considerations for the purposes of doing business and protecting the interests of their own nationals.

In China, specialist research centers translate Russian laws and study the Russian legal system, but with purely practical goals. This research is primarily in demand among Chinese people keen to invest in the Russian economy, to help them navigate the terms of doing business in Russia and of trade between Russia and China. It’s also required to protect the rights and interests of Chinese nationals in Russia. There is no interest in borrowing Russian law, however, unlike the laws of developed countries.

Chinese law has its roots in Germanic legal traditions, which came to China via Japan. It’s true that following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese legal system and constitution were developed with the active assistance of Soviet lawyers and took into account their Soviet equivalents, but that didn’t change the foundation of the legal system, since Soviet law was also based on the Romano-Germanic legal system.

The influence of Soviet law (as opposed to Russian law) in China is obvious, not least in the constitutional framework. Under the constitution, the People’s Republic of China is a socialist state that does not adhere to the principle of the separation of powers.

That constitutional framework determines certain aspects of Chinese civil law. For example, Chinese law bans private land ownership. Land can be state property, or the collective property of agricultural organizations. For this reason, as in the USSR, land can only be provided to organizations and individuals on limited terms, and transactions govern rights of use rather than ownership. Buying and selling land outright is forbidden under Article 10 of the Chinese constitution.

The constitution also contains articles identical to those found in the 1977 Soviet constitution, such as articles 2 and 6, which state that all power belongs to the people, who exercise it through congresses of people’s representatives, and that the foundation of the socialist economic system is “socialist public ownership of the means of production, that is, ownership by the whole people and collective ownership by the working people.”

The main trend in recent decades has been the gradual elimination of the Soviet legacy in Chinese law, and the development of China’s own rules. When the general provisions of China’s Civil Code were passed in 2017, lawmakers spoke of the need to “hand down the splendid traditions of China’s legal culture” and the “inadmissibility of blindly copying foreign legal ideas and models.”

Very little in the Chinese legal system is borrowed from contemporary Russian law, and vice versa. For a start, the two countries don’t study each other’s legal systems in sufficient volume or detail. If in China Russian law is at least studied at the basic level, there are no centers or experts in Russia specializing in Chinese law. Most Chinese and Russian legal experts are far better versed in Germanic and English law.

Secondly, both China and Russia are still in the process of constructing their legal systems. Those systems don’t yet look like a perfect model to the other. As a rule, the aim of borrowing is to adopt norms and laws that have already been tried and tested and have proven to be effective. Otherwise, there is no point in borrowing them.

Finally, and most importantly, despite all the similarities between Russian and Chinese domestic political realities, the specific circumstances of each country require self-determination in terms of lawmaking. Sensitive issues relating to state security and the system of government, along with economic peculiarities exclusive to China or Russia, preclude the copying of laws from other countries. As for issues relating to the regulation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, no one has any lengthy experience in these areas, which means countries have no choice but to create their own laws independently.

This publication is part of the Sino-Russian Entente project carried out with the support of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

  • Pavel Bazhanov