By Moses Chan, King & Wood Mallesons

General situation of PRC law translations in the publication market 

The general situation is: In the past decades, it is “difficult” to locate good quality and timely versions of PRC law translation.

Only the Constitution of the PRC was come with an official English version, and it is not the responsibility of the PRC government to provide its own English translation of all promulgated laws of all levels, from the “basic laws” (e.g. the “Civil Code”, or the “Criminal Code”), to the numerous administrative regulations, and to the implementing rules for both the laws and the regulations. But, in commercial reality, both the non-Chinese reading foreign lawyers and investors needs copies of PRC law in good legal English, not to mention students of foreign law schools which provide “PRC law” classes. 

Therefore, there popped up the huge market of producing provisions of “acceptable” (that is, understood, or legible, to non-Chinese reading lawyers) quality translations of PRC law. Recently, it is mainly dominated by those major western legal publishers, such as Lexis China, CCH/ Kluwer China, West Law China and the like. In past decades, they have invested heavily in pushing out numerous products of quality English versions on PRC law. These legal publishers had developed their business from the traditional paper loose leave years to the recent online internet versions, mainly in American legal English styles, or with their own special “handmade” translations of certain legal terminology of which no English equivalent could be found, and only exists in PRC law.

Anyway, there is no absolute “standard” in terms of English translation quality on PRC law, provided it is legible to the non-Chinese reading foreign lawyers to understand what the wording of the law means. And, translations of these western legal publishers are highly “selective”, that is, other than the basic legal framework, or “core basic laws” in both civil and economic laws, only those laws and regulations relevant to “foreign-related” economic or commercial activities, both for inbound and outbound investments, cross-border projects or multi-jurisdictional cases, will be picked to translate. Therefore, for those who wish to have a view of the whole picture of PRC law, mainland simplified Chinese reading ability is a must.

To get hold of a decent “workable” English text of PRC law is only the start of this long and hard journey of PRC law research. Other than reading the dry text itself, an attempt to collate this particular text of the law with other peripheral legal information relevant to this piece of legislation or area of law, with a view to get a deeper understanding of the overall context, or scope of narration, of this group of laws, is the real task for law researchers. This will be dealt with below.

Other than those translation products of the above listed major western legal publishers, full texts of PRC laws also be found in law journals of the major US, UK, or HK law journals, but taken as appendix documents placed after that article and only those major law related to the topic of that article which are frequently cited in its content will be translated. The same also appears in law text books of PRC law written in English, again, only those major laws related to the topic of that text book would be selectively translated.

There existed some free databases of PRC law in English organized by some non-profit-making organizations, such as HKLII:

In recent decades, on web pages of some PRC government bodies and major PRC law schools also appeared with full texts of PRC law in English, but only on specific area or topics of work of that Ministry be available. Example:

Interpretation of law

Under legal systems of the west, especially those operates with the Doctrine of Precedent, in which judicial interpretation are of “high authority”, and sources of documentation on interpretation of law usually can be found in full texts of court judgments published in law reports since the 18th C, mostly of the Supreme Court judgments . But in the PRC, there exists no Doctrine of Precedent, and in forms of their existence, there are at least four types of “interpretation of law”, of “Chinese characteristics” as such.

1. Judicial interpretation

Other than full texts of judicial judgment of the delivered case made by courts of all levels in China, though not exhaustively published in print or online, documents of “Judicial Interpretation”, in fact, are a special group of court document “announced” by the Chinese courts, usually the PRC Supreme Court, with its main function as the supplementary explanation, elaboration and illustration on the inner meaning/s and scope/s of application of the specific terminology, expression and legal phrases which first appeared in this piece of new law or regulation.

Some sample books on PRC Judicial Interpretations:

2. Legislative interpretation

The law making body of China, the National People’s Congress, usually through its NPC Annual Report of the current year, or in the monthly NPC Gazette, “announces” documents of “Elaborations” or explanations, on a particular piece or group of laws or regulations, mainly of macro or high level importance to social, economic or commercial activities and environment of to-day China. Though these documents are not treated as “directly legally binding” or enforceable, but again, they are very helpful in studying the background of origin or the legislative purpose of such law/s.

3. Administrative interpretation

In China, the first draft of the new laws usually came from the Administrative branch, that is, ministerial officials of central/ local governmental bodies, of which made of government servants in the “Treaty and Law Section” of that particular Ministry. Most of the administrative regulations made by the central government, or the State Council, are with their own origins from the local or provincial laws of “rules” or administrative “procedures or policies” previously issued “for trial implementation”, usually for certain period of time, than to be “upgraded” and “unified” to central government administrative regulations. Therefore, the law drafting ministerial official knows exactly what the relevant background history and legal narration existed in the expressions or legal wording in the administrative regulation they drafted.

As usual, when a new administrative regulation was promulgated, there appears with the a line of the appropriate “press conferences”, of which are mainly held by the relevant senior officials of that law drafting Ministry, they first explaining what the wording of the new law means and their expected scope of question, then, to answer questions from the reporters on the “grey areas” of that new law.

4. Academic interpretation

These are mostly individual opinions or views made by senior law professors, or law book writers, on a particular piece of new law or an area of laws, in form of a series of articles, or in a whole monograph, online or in print. Their main purpose is to try to make a historic review and future foresight on four aspects of legislation: “Under what background and why the law came out?”, “What scope the law covered and, how is its effect?”, “What the evolution of the law should be, in the future?”

These opinions or views are very helpful to both the law drafters in the central government, practicing lawyers who may face with lots of “grey areas” in respect in its daily implementation and, legal researchers in both the academic field and, the legal profession itself, particularly the relevant issue are “active” or exist in litigation process, finally, law students in following the thinking of their respected law teachers.

Articles by law academics 

Recommended sources of articles by law academics:

Articles by law practitioners 

Recommended sources of articles by law practitioners:

1. websites of major global “international” law firms.

Such as,

2. “Specialist ” or professional databases on PRC law: 

Legal Studio 

3. China Law & Practice 

4. China Law Blog 

5. org Legal Resources

Teaching materials in law schools  

Recommended sources of teaching materials:

Suggested tips on PRC law research

One of the major “tips”, or reminders, for new comers to PRC law research projects is, after deciding the “core keyword/s” of that particular piece of legislation or area of law to be worked on, then try to gather as much as you can for all relevant news, articles, blogs or the like, which mentioned that particular piece of legislation or area of law. The last thing to read is the dry text of that law itself.

The main reason for this necessary procedure of relevant or peripheral information gathering would be, there must be a social/ economic background or legal environment which fosters or drives the PRC government to make that particular piece of law or area of legislation. And, in terms of both respect to legal expression or narrations on the topic, it is a very helpful supplementary tool and background reference in helping one to read the new law with much ease.

As to the amendments of the “old law”, again, try to gather as much as you can for all its legislative history and all reports of “periodic reviews of implementation” on this particular piece of law published by the NPC or the State Council.

Note: This article is originally published in Issue 2, 2015 of the Australian Law Librarian Association.

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