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1.Economic reform and development

1.1.  From autarky to a global role

1.2.  Internal economic reform

1.3.  Governance


2.Legal reform

2.1.  The rule of law

2.2.  A modern legal system with Chinese characteristics


Business Law in China


Even prior to 1949, China had not developed a stable national legal system along the modern
models of Western Europe, North America and Japan. By the end of the Cultural Revolution in
1976, the practice of law and its teaching in universities had practically ceased.

Since 1978, China’s leaders have launched a historic process of restructuring the national economy and gradual opening of the borders to flows of goods, technology, services, capital, people and ideas.

In many of the initial reforms, the laws served as little more than the form of expression of the new rules. But the Chinese leadership has attached great importance to spawning a complete, efficient and just legal system. Increasingly, the quality of the country’s legal system is
recognized as a distinct and significant contributor to economic and social development.


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Business Law in China

1.  Economic reform and development

Since 1978, China has traded in its international autarky, instituted a socialist market economy and propelled itself into a principal role in the global economy.

During his watershed trip to the South of China in 1992, Deng Xiao Ping explained how the socialist market economy does not represent the road to capitalism:

The proportion of planning to market forces is not the essential difference between socialism  and  capitalism.  A  planned  economy  is  not  equivalent  to  socialism, because there is planning under capitalism too; a market economy is not capitalism, because there are markets under socialism too. Planning and market forces are both means of controlling economic activity. The essence of socialism lies in the liberation and  development  of  the  productive  forces,  the  elimination  of  exploitation  and polarization, and the ultimate achievement of prosperity for all.1

He  also  justified  the  opening  up  to  “the  achievements  of  all  cultures  .  .  .   including  the  developed capitalist countries” as a means to obtain “advanced techniques of management”. 2  Whether socialism can make use of any particular capitalist technique, such as, in Deng’s example, stock exchanges, is an empirical  question  and  is  answered  by  “experimentation”  over  a  couple  of  years  with  the  idea  of expanding the application of successful experiments.3

In  August  1980,  as  an  experiment  in  the  attraction  and  exploitation  of  foreign  investment,  the  PRC adopted  regulations  to  permit  the  opening  of  special  economic  zones  (SEZs)  in  Shenzhen,  Zhuhai, Xiamen and Shantou. The Zones benefited from streamlined access to the central authorities bypassing those  at  the  provincial  level.  Foreign  enterprises  were  allowed  exceptionally  to  invest  with  Chinese firms in joint ventures that benefited from preferential treatment in areas such as taxation, labor law, social regulation. As the experiment proved successful, it was extended in November 1984 to Hainan Island and to 14 other coastal cities. In October 1986, the State Council allowed cities, provinces and autonomous regions to promulgate investment incentives for foreign enterprises manufacturing for the export market and incentives for technologically advanced enterprises. By 1988, some 33 preferential areas had been opened. As of 2004, there were 54 Economic and Technological Development Zones
(ETDZs), 15 export procession zones (EPZs) in specified cities, 15 Free Trade Zones (FTZs), 14 National
Border and Economic Cooperation Zones (NBECZs) and 53 New and High Technology Development
Zones (NHTDZs).


1.1.  From autarky to a global role

Considering that in 1978 exports and imports reached respectively USD 9.8 and USD 10.9 billion, China’s international trade sector has grown by more than 100 times with exports and imports corresponding  in  2007  respectively  to  USD  1.218  trillion  and  USD  955  billion.4 While  the international sector now accounts for only some 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) (compared with 2-3 times more in Hong Kong and Singapore),5  net exports in 2007 accounted for more than
a quarter of China's 11.9 percent GDP growth.6


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Business Law in China

China’s share of world trade ( at current USD in millions)


In 2005, the country’s annual GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity propelled it to the rank
of second largest economy in the world at USD 5.3 trillion, passed only by the United States. In October, 2007, China placed five of its companies, all State-owned enterprises (SOEs), among the world’s top ten in terms of market capitalization.7  Combined issues of equity in 2007 by Chinese companies  corresponded  to  some  USD  100  billion,  with  an  estimated  USD  65  billion  raised  by listings  in  Shanghai  and  Shenzhen  and  the  bulk  of  the  remainder  in  Hong  Kong.8   In  2006, companies raised more on the Chinese exchanges than was raised on any other national market.9
Chinese imports of raw materials push up world prices of natural resources while its exports push downward world prices of manufactured goods.10  And the country is already moving up the scale of value added. In 2006, China was the world’s leading exporter of information and communications equipment with a total of USD 298 billion surpassing the second-ranked United States by USD
129 billion.



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Business Law in China


By the end of 2005, some 552,960 foreign enterprises had made direct investments in China worth
an accumulated USD 634.51 billion.11  In 2006 and 2007, China drew respectively USD 69.4 billion and a record USD 74.7 billion in foreign direct investment,12  and in 2007 it was ranked third most attractive country in the world after the United States and Britain.13

In  addition,  through  2006,  Chinese  companies  have  raised  more  than  USD  100  billion  from offerings of their shares on foreign markets. The USD 2.2 billion listing in 2006 in Hong Kong and Shanghai by China’s Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) was the largest in history.14

Not only is China a magnet for investment, it has become a major participant on overseas financial markets. With USD 2.2 trillion held in deposits in China,15   and a savings rate corresponding to
50% of household income, China will soon become a world-leading exporter of capital.16

In the second quarter of 2008, its accumulated reserves of international currencies were racing past USD 1.8 trillion.17  Even conservative estimates place China’s stake in United States treasuries
in 2005 at USD 400 billion,18  and that figure had probably more than doubled by July 2008. In 2006, overseas investment by Chinese firms totaled USD 16.1 billion, up 31.6 % year-to-year. Their total investment in international markets is predicted to reach at least USD 66 billion by 2010.19


In 2003 and 2004, TLC acquired operations from Thomson and Alcatel and in 2004 Lenovo acquired
IBM’s personal computer unit. In June 2007, China’s sovereign fund, China Investment Corporation
(CIC), which is the world’s third largest such fund with a capital of USD 200 billion,20  paid USD
3 billion for a 9.3% of Blackstone Group’s initial public offering. In December of the same year, it spent  USD  5  billion  for  a  9.9%  stake  in  Morgan  Stanley.  When  the  Aluminum  Corporation  of China  acquired  a  9%  stake  in  Rio  Tinto  in  February  2008  for  USD  14  billion,  the  State-owned company  carried  off  the  biggest  ever  overseas  investment  by  a  Chinese  group  and  the  largest ever raid on the London stock market.21

Altogether, about 120,000 mainland-funded enterprises have set up overseas establishments and the number is growing by about 35,000 a year. 22


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Business Law in China

1.2.  Internal economic reform and development

Within China, non-State owned organizations are gradually gaining ascendancy in the determination
of economic choices. By 2003, 96% of retail sales were carried out at market prices, as were 96%
of sales of agricultural products and 87% of manufactured goods.23  As of 2003, 59.2% of GDP was produced  by  the  private  sector.24   Between  1998  and  2003,  the  share  of  private  enterprises  in their total number increased from about 35% to more than 70%.25  During the same period, the private sector’s share of total employment jumped from about 20% to more than 50%.26


In  fact,  the  State  still  dominates  certain  sectors  such  as  energy,  transportation,  finance  and media. The State also retains the majority interests in almost all companies quoted on China’s stock exchanges.

The  Chinese  authorities  have  sought  to  separate  ownership  of  State  assets  from  control  over their  management,  retaining  ownership  while  investing  management  powers  in  independent entities. Enterprise reform has gone through several phases.

In the second half of the 1980s, the so-called contract responsibility system was used to make SOEs  responsible  for  their  profits  and  losses.  But  when  the  system  proved  prone  to  abuse, attention was shifted instead beginning in the 1990s to corporatization.


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Business Law in China


By the end of the 1990s more than half of the SOEs had been transformed into companies with independent management organs, leaving the central and local governments as owners. In the course  of  that  decade,  more  than  1,000  SOEs  issued  shares  to  the  public  and  listed  them  for trading on stock exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen. Often SOEs were split into a parent and a subsidiary company, with the subsidiary assuming the productive assets before getting listed, and the parent intended to serve as a resolution clearing center for liabilities and redundant personnel. Thus, substantial majorities of the shares of the listed SOEs remained in the hands of the central and  local  governments.  Not  only  has  this  configuration  generated  opportunities  for  profit seeking at the expense of minority shareholders, but also the overhang of State-held shares has weighed like a sword of Damocles on stock market prices.

Since  1999,  the  government  has  been  committed  to  privatizing  all  activities  except  those involving State security, natural monopolies, high and new technologies and a limited number of important goods and services.


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Business Law in China

1.3.  Governance

Problems of governance remain the principal obstacle to the achievement of a modern industrial and financial system. The omnipresent requirement of administrative approvals and licenses as conditions  of  access  to  activities  and  the  plethora  of  State  organs  exercising  overlapping  and sometimes  conflicting  jurisdictions  multiply  the  opportunities  for  the  abuse  of  administrative powers. Legal certainty is sapped when any of the local government units acts outside the bounds
of national laws and regulations, but frequently local regulations have innovated in the interstices
of national rules and, when successful, have anticipated national reforms, of which the evolution
of China’s financial markets provides an eloquent example.

The World Bank, in its reports Doing Business, benchmarking national performances according
to  selected  criteria  measuring  the  ease  of  doing  business,  ranked  China  in  terms  of  corporate governance  between  New  Zealand,  Hong  Kong  and  the  United  States  as  models  and  slightly above Mexico.27

According to Transparency International, China ranks 72nd in terms of perceptions by risk agencies and country analysts of its vulnerability to corruption. It is common for employees to be involved
in  purchasing  and  sales  corruption,  kick-backs,  thefts  of  confidential  information  as  well  as treating on behalf of their employers with enterprises in which they have interests.28   Nepotism and  favoritism  have  resulted  in  transfers  to  insiders  of  State-owned  assets  at  abnormally  low prices,  grants  of  credit  and  other  advantages  without  due  regard  for  counterparty  risks,  the awarding of concessions and contracts without due preference for the most competitive offers, appointments and designations without due regard for individual abilities.

While some observers within and outside China are inclined toward tolerance or indulgence,29 the  Chinese  authorities  have  adopted  an  arsenal  of  legal  weapons  to  combat  corruption  that meets international standards in terms of the conduct that is proscribed30  and goes well beyond the severity of punishment practiced in most countries. 31

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Business Law in China

2. Legal reform

The weakness of the rule of law in contemporary China is a major source of concern. In particular, the judicial  system’s  submission  to  political  influence,32   especially  that  of  local  government  officials,  its vulnerability  to  corruption33    and  its  weak  expertise34    exacerbate  the  lack  of  legal  remedies,35    the inadequacy of the available sanctions36  and the randomness of their enforceability.37


2.1.  The rule of law

While still a work in progress, the Chinese legal system has been among the most breathtaking achievements  of  the  reform  movement  launched  in  1978.  Even  the  fact  that  the  early  reforms were adopted by the use of recognized legal sources represented a variance with respect to prior politicized processes. In 1997, the 15th National Congress of the Communist Party adopted the rule  of  law  as  a  “basic  strategy”  and  an  important  goal  for  socialist  modernization  and  it committed itself  to  the task  of building a socialist legal system with  Chinese characteristics. In
1999, the Constitution was amended to include protection for the rule of law. At its 17th National Congress in 2007, the Communist Party renewed its call for “comprehensive implementation” of the rule of law.

In its February 2008 report on “China’s Efforts and Achievements in Promoting the Rule of Law”, the  State  Council  reaffirmed  the  country’s  commitment  to  the  rule  of  law  as  a  “fundamental principle”.

The intertwining of legal reform with economic reform is illustrated by the adoption as early as in
1980 of the Provisional Regulations with respect to Lawyers. At first, lawyers were State workers expected to give priority to their duty to protect socialism and the Chinese State over their duties toward their clients. But in the manner typical of the reform movement, the State has fostered a gradual transformation toward independence of the legal profession.

After seven years of preparation, a national Law with respect to lawyers was adopted on May 15,
1996 and it entered into effect on January 1, 1997. 38  It was amended on December 29, 200139  and again on October 28, 2007 with effect as of June 1, 2008.40  A main issue of contention as regards the  independence  of  the  legal  profession  arises because  of  the  exposure  of  lawyers  under  the law’s  article  37  to  administrative  and  criminal  sanctions  for  their  defense  of  causes  that  touch upon national security, for their use in court of arguments that constitute slander and for their conduct that causes courtroom disruptions.

Since 1985, the Standing Committee of the NPC has adopted five decisions and four five-years plans  to  promote  the  dissemination  of  knowledge  of  law  among  the  people.  More  than  300 television stations carry programs on the law.

As  of  the  end  of  2006,  603  institutions  of  higher  learning  offered  bachelor’s  degrees  in  law  to some 300,000 students majoring in the subject. Some 333 institutions awarded master’s degrees
in law and 29 doctorate degrees.

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Business Law in China


Within three decades of the launching of the reform movement, China’s accomplishments in the building of legal institutions enabled it, in 2001, to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) with the intentions not only of submitting to its rules because of their demonstrated effectiveness in promoting international trade and development, but also to use it as a forum in which to press
its own claims for equal treatment in accordance with international law.

In the process of building a modern legal system compatible with the constraints in the WTO’s substantive  agreements,  China  adopted,  amended  or  repealed  within  a  few  years  some  3,150 laws  and  regulations.  China’s  reform  of  the  regulatory  frameworks  of  its  trade  and  financial sectors  have won the praise of the WTO and of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


2.2.  A modern legal system with Chinese characteristics

The implementation of legal reform since 1978 has entailed a deliberate effort to draw inspiration from the best results achieved by other countries in regulating economic activities. Delegations
of Chinese officials, experts and scholars have sought encounters with their correspondents in foreign countries to discuss their solutions to all aspects of social engineering within the purview
of the law. Large numbers of the country’s youth have enrolled in the finest foreign law schools,
business  schools  and  universities.  As  China  has  joined  all  the  major  international  economic conventions, Chinese-origin personnel within international organizations have worked with their peers from other countries and are assuming ever more important responsibilities. By way of
just one illustration, the World Bank has appointed a scholar from China as its chief economist,
Justin  Yifu  Lin,  founder  and  director  of  the  China  Center  for  Economic  Research  at  Peking University41 . While some foreign jurists attach considerable importance to the classification of the Chinese legal system as belonging either to the common law legal tradition or to that of the civil law, the State Council has clearly described the country’s pragmatic approach to the integration
of foreign rules of law:

China pays attention to making reference to and learning from other countries' experience  in  legislation.  In  the  field  of  civil  and  commercial  legislation,  the basic  systems  of  both  common  law  countries  and  continental  law  countries have influenced the general principles of civil law, as well as the contract and the  property  laws,  and  inspiration  has  been  drawn  from  the  spirit  of  the principles  of  private  law  and  legislation  applicable  throughout  the  world  .  .  . China   has   adopted   the   principle   of   legal   certainty   and   the   principle   of proportionality applicable in modern administrative law . . . The Criminal Law and the Criminal Procedure Law have adopted the basic principles and spirit of the law applicable in other countries . . . Regarding legislation for the protection
of  intellectual  property  rights  and  environmental  protection,  China  has  also
learned much from foreign experience.42

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Business Law in China


3. Outlook

For the Chinese authorities, the major challenges currently arise from the effects of development on the environment, from frictions in the transformation of working and living conditions and from risks
due to legal insecurity and to shortcomings in government and business governance. Despite the accomplishments of legal reform, much remains to be improved. Among the many subjects that could
be evoked to illustrate the need for continued efforts to improve the legal system are the questions of
the perpetuity of property rights in land, the transfer of State shares to the investing community, the reform of the internal labor market and the implementation of adequate systems of social protection, increased independence of the judiciary, improved governance among all sectors of society, and in particular within government and business where special efforts are required to reduce incidents of corruption, nepotism, corporate fraud, insider trading, and criminal-scale violations of intellectual property.43

For  legal  experts  and  scholars  around  the  world,  the  Chinese  experience  in  the  building  of  a  legal system is unique, at least in our times, for its departure from the proverbial blank page. It may be seen
as  an  experiment  in  the  optimization  within  a  national  context  of  the  experience  accumulated  over several centuries in overseas legal systems. In developing their country’s legal system, China’s experts have  not  sought  to  emulate  as  a  matter  of  principle  either  common  law  or  civil  law  traditions,  but instead have opted for the most practical, effective and adaptable solutions from whatsoever country or foreign legal tradition they may originate.


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Business Law in China



1 Selected Works of Deng Xiao Ping, Volume III, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1994, p. 361.

2 Selected Works of Deng Xiao Ping, Volume III, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1994, p. 361-2.

3 Selected Works of Deng Xiao Ping, Volume III, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1994, p. 361.

4 China Exports (WSJ), Dow Jones Newswires, March 3, 2008.

5 China's GDP Grew 11.9% in 2007, Closing In on Third-Largest Economy, (WSJ) Associated Press, April 10, 2008; according
to the National Statistics Bureau, China's gross domestic product in 2007, in nominal terms, reached RMB 24.95 trillion, or
USD 3.61 trillion at then current exchange rates.

6 Exports wilt but mighty China barely winces (Reuters), April 24, 2008, Simon Rabinovitch.

7 China Overtakes U.S. in Top 10 Companies as China Life Surges (Bloomberg), Chua Kong Ho, October 29, 2007. Admittedly, the Chinese stock markets had just peaked after a two-year six fold rise and in the following six months, the markets dropped by some 50%. The companies were: China Life, The People's Bank of China, PetroChina Co., China Mobile Ltd., and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd..

8 In 2006, USD 42 billion were raised in Hong Kong and a further USD 17 billion on the mainland exchanges. China’s IPO
juggernaut thunders on (FT), Sundeep Tucker, December 18, 2007.

9 Goldman Sachs, China Partner Discuss a Split (WSJ), Peter Stein and James T. Areddy, September 18, 2007.

10      China is the world's largest producer and consumer of steel and the second-biggest user of energy, Clipping the dragon's wings (The Economist), December 19, 2007. In 2007, China became the world’s largest producer of gold, La Chine est le premier producteur d'or (Le Figaro), Perrine Créquy, January 18, 2008.

11      An overview of China’s absorption of foreign direct investment in 2005, Invest in China, The OECD provides a more modest estimate of the stock of foreign direct investment at the end of 2005 corresponding to USD 471 549 million,

12      Foreign inflow hits record US$ 74.7b (SCMP), Frederick Yeung, January 21, 2008.

13      Foreign direct investment inflows (The Economist), September 13, 2007.

14      The race is on to be Asia’s number one for finance (FT), Sundeep Tucker, July 5 2007.

15      China Overtakes U.S. in Top 10 Companies as China Life Surges (Bloomberg), Chua Kong Ho, October 29, 2007.

16      The right way to respond to China’s exploding surpluses (FT), Martin Wolf, May 29 2007.

17      In the interest of keeping proper perspective, it is useful to recall that in February 2000, a few months before the bursting
of the internet bubble, 15 of the 20 largest companies in the world were involved in telecommunications, media or technology-related activities. In 1989, prior to the crash of the Japanese markets, 16 of the 20 largest companies in the
world were Japanese. Huit sociétés chinoises parmi les vingt premières capitalisations mondiales (les Echos), October 25,

18      China Reserves to Favor Strong Currencies, Cheng Says (Bloomberg), Josephine Lau, November 7, 2007.

19      Record forex reserves keep heat on yuan, (SCMP), Guo Aibing, July 12, 2007.

20      U.S. Pushes Sovereign Funds To Open to Outside Scrutiny (WSJ) Treasury Has Talks With Abu Dhabi, Seeks Set of Rules, Bob Davis, February 26, 2008.

21      China's champions: Why state ownership is no longer proving a dead hand (FT), Geoff Dyer and Richard McGregor, March
16, 2008.

22      Foreign inflow hits record US$74.7b (SCMP), Frederick Yeung, January 21, 2008.

23      Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques, Chine, Etudes Economiques, Paris, 2005,p. 29.

24      Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques, Chine, Etudes Economiques, Paris, 2005, p. 40.

25      Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques, Chine, Etudes Economiques, Paris, 2005, p. 105.

26      Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques, Chine, Etudes Economiques, Paris, 2005, p. 105.

27      The Bank’s evaluations are based on the answers of national panels of professionals to hypothetical cases; the corporate governance problem tests a national legal system’s degree of protection of minority investors against abuses by the majority. World Bank, Doing Business in 2006, p. 25.

28      Samuel Porteous, Doing Business in China: Corruption and Internal Fraud, March 16, 2005.

29      The too frequently advanced and spurious argument that corruption is endemic to the Chinese culture is proved wrong by Hong Kong which now ranks 14th on the Transparency International Index,


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Business Law in China


30      Chinese law proscribes corruption in both its public and private manifestations and has also outlawed money laundering
for a range of offences including corruption and tax evasion. China has also ratified the United Nations treaty to combat corruption and that to combat international economic criminal activity. See the chapter on Business Criminal Law.

31      PRC officials defend the execution of corrupt officials as proportionate with national conditions, Beijing defends execution
of corrupt officials, IHT, August 2, 2007. Zheng Xiaoyu, former director of China's State Food and Drug Administration, was executed in July of 2007. He was the fourth senior official of his rank to be sentenced to death in recent years, following former vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC Cheng Kejie and two former provincial deputy
governors Hu Changqing and Wang Huaizhong. Cheng and Hu were sentenced in 2000 and Wang was sentenced in 2004,
Former head of China's drug watchdog executed, (Xinhua) Beijing, July 10, 2007. In 2001, China executed an official who spent nearly USD 5 million of public money on a gambling spree. The former deputy mayor of the north-eastern city of Shenyang, Ma Xiangdong, was put to death, along with the city's public property chief, Guo Jiusi, BBC News, China
executes corrupt officials, December, 19, 2001

32      In accordance with article 11 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts, democratic centralism is imposed by the judicial committees that must be constituted by courts at all levels.

33      According to China’s Chief Procurator between 1993 and 1997, 17,214 judicial officials were investigated for corruption, OECD, Governance in China, Paris, 2005, p.107.

34      While official figures indicate that 80% of the country’s 220,000 judges have a college education, other sources estimate that in 2002 the number of trial judges alone was some 300,000 but only 29% held university degrees, Xin Chunying, Chinese Courts – History and Transition, Law Press China, 2004, Beijing, p. 197.

35      In 2001, the People’s Supreme Court ordered the suspension of hearings of hundreds of actions brought by wronged shareholders for fraud, insider trading and market manipulations, Jiangyu Wang, Dancing with Wolves: Regulation and Deregulation of Foreign Investment in China’s Stock Market, Asia-Pacific Law & Policy Journal, Vol. 5 (2004), p. 43.

36      Among the most vociferous critics in this regard are the foreign owners of intellectual property that reproach the Chinese authorities for their unwillingness to press criminal charges against apparently commercial-scale infringements and for the insignificant damages obtained in civil suits, International Intellectual Property Alliance, 2007 Special 301 Report,

37      According to the People’s Supreme Court, there were in 1998 some one million judgments worth RMB 190 billion that had not been implemented. On the national level, in 2004, 30% of all judgments remain unenforced, Xin Chunying, Chinese Courts – History and Transition, Law Press China, 2004, Beijing, p. 205.

38      It was adopted by the 19th Session of the Standing Committee of the Eighth NPC.

39      he amendment was adopted by the 25th Session of the Standing Committee of the Ninth NPC.

40      The amendment was adopted by the 30th Session of the Standing Committee of the Tenth NPC.

41      World Bank Taps China (WSJ), Scholar Lin Is Named As Chief Economist Upending Tradition, Bob Davis and Andrew
Batson, January 21, 2008.

42      State Council, China’s Efforts and Achievements in Promoting the Rule of Law, Beijing, February 2008, p. 30.

43      For instance, the World Bank has criticized the extent of operations at abnormal and unfavorable prices, of the appropriation of resources for personal ends, of fraud in the issue and trading of shares, of nepotism and favoritism including involving the Communist Party, World Bank, China Corporate Governance Report 2003.



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