Improving disciplinary system for Chinese criminal law studies

By CHE HAO / 06-13-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A disciplinary system has a direct bearing on the direction and standards of teaching and research work for scholars. Photo: TUCHONG

The “Opinions on Accelerating the Construction of Philosophy and Social Sciences with Chinese Characteristics” issued by the CPC Central Committee emphasizes the need to expedite the development of a disciplinary system for philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics. 

A well-developed disciplinary system can provide impetus and platforms for constructing academic and discourse systems, with a direct bearing on the direction and standards of teaching and research work for scholars within the disciplinary system of modern institutions of higher learning. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, through the collective efforts of several generations of criminal law scholars, the disciplinary system of criminal law with Chinese characteristics has taken its basic form after decades of development. Moving forward, efforts need to be made in the following three areas.

Optimize structure 

Currently, many law schools’ disciplinary focus in criminal law remains narrow, primarily centered on interpreting the criminal law code itself, lacking diversification in other research areas. This is evidenced by an absence of courses in criminology, criminal policy, and criminal procedural law, alongside a noticeable shortage of relevant researchers and publications in these fields. Some better-developed institutions superficially achieve diversification by establishing sub-disciplines such as criminology and criminal policy under criminal law, but there is a lack of communication between them, each pursuing its own research agenda. Moreover, there is little-to-no integration between different areas of knowledge or cross-pollination of research findings.

The disciplinary configuration in legal education profoundly impacts criminal justice. Contemporary Chinese criminal justice practice is typically guided by specific criminal policies. However, policy makers and primary-level judicial officers, as well as scholars studying criminal policy, are trained under traditional legal education models, resulting in a narrow understanding of criminal policy, focused solely on criminal punishment rather than exploring the comprehensive influence of external environments on criminal behavior. This traditional model views criminals as entirely free-willed individuals who are accountable, and as objects to be deterred and punished. 

Consequently, judicial officers may consider general prevention to be the sole purpose of punishment, adjusting the severity of criminal policies through various judicial documents, which reduces the basic value of criminal policy, intended to be both a “science of observation” and an “art or strategy for organizing anti-crime efforts.”

Regrettably, the academic community has not given this sufficient reflection. In recent years, there has been a certain false prosperity in domestic criminal policy research. In this field, which should be closely related to practice, there has been a proliferation of concepts detached from reality and self-propagation, with scholars engrossed in piecing together foreign theories and conceptual innovations on paper, while paying little attention to judicial practice. The root cause lies in scholars’ fragmented understanding of disciplines such as criminal law, criminal policy, and criminology, rather than their close integration. Thus, when discussing criminal law, they do not consider criminal policy, and when discussing criminal policy, they do not consider criminology.

To address the above issues, it is necessary to further improve the discipline of criminal law by adding sub-disciplines such as criminology and criminal policy under the umbrella of the criminal law discipline. This move would significantly promote interdisciplinary integration and collaboration. Within the holistic perspective of criminal justice, an ideal relationship between criminology, criminal policy, and criminal law can be achieved. On one hand, it is essential to advocate for practice-oriented research in criminal law dogmatics guided by criminal policy. On the other hand, criminal policy also needs to be based on criminological investigations to establish the basis and criteria for its leniency or severity. It is important to explore the root causes of different crimes and allocate the country’s penal resources accordingly. 

Using criminology to communicate between criminal policy and other social systems can provide a decision-making basis and substantive content for the “leniency” and “severity” of criminal policy, avoiding the arbitrary misuse of concepts such as “necessity of punishment” and “purposefulness.” Only on this basis can the reasons for differentiated treatment and varying degrees of severity in criminal policy be accurately explained, scientifically guiding criminal law dogmatic research on different crimes, and ultimately achieving the task of “reasonably organizing the response to crime.” The subjects and data of criminological research, as well as the severity and application scope of criminal policy, are all oriented towards the local context. They concern both the premises and consequences of the operation of criminal law and inject local elements into its operation. Only through the coordinated development of the disciplinary system of criminal law can narrow criminal law dogmatics be combined with criminal policy, criminology, prison law, and other disciplines, thereby promoting interdisciplinary research and establishing an integrated disciplinary system of criminal law with Chinese characteristics. 

Strengthen competency training  

Curriculum construction is the platform and foundation for disciplinary construction in colleges and universities. Currently, the structure of many institutions’ criminal law curriculum systems is outdated, primarily based on didactic education, with a severe lack of competency training courses. Feedback from employers indicates that many law school graduates have poor basic skills and prefer empty theoretical discussions. This is closely related to traditional legal education, which emphasizes the teaching of systematic knowledge or cutting-edge theories, neglecting the training and cultivation of students’ professional abilities.

Taking the courses “General Principles of Criminal Law” and “Specific Provisions of Criminal Law” as examples, their teaching format primarily consists of knowledge-based lectures in large classes, focusing on the foundational knowledge framework of the discipline, which is undoubtedly important. However, this one-way knowledge transfer method omits corresponding training components, and thus does not translate into the ability to solve actual legal problems. In the classroom, students learn many concepts, definitions, and theories but do not have the ability to apply them practically.

Although the current criminal law curriculum system has never denied, and even emphasized, the importance of skill development, in terms of specific course formats, it basically relies on teacher-led knowledge delivery supplemented by various theoretical discussion sessions. This approach neglects the fact that the main career path for law students is to become professional legal practitioners. It also fails to recognize that professional abilities cannot be obtained merely by listening to lectures and discussions, but require repetitive training.

To improve this situation, it is necessary to vigorously promote competency training-based case teaching. In addition to knowledge-based lectures, training courses centered on case studies should be established. Attending lectures helps students acquire knowledge, but possessing knowledge does not necessarily equate to acquiring abilities. Abilities are built upon knowledge, but independent training sessions where the application of knowledge is repeatedly practiced are essential. Skills such as driving, swimming, playing sports, and even the most basic abilities like speaking and walking are acquired through long-term practice rather than by attending lectures. The same principle applies to the professional skills of legal practitioners. In addition, traditional case teaching, which explains the law through cases, is centered on teachers explaining cases to students. However, the competency training-based case teaching advocated for here is centered on students’ competency training, with teachers playing the role of coaches.

Link theory with practice

Unlike other social sciences, law is highly practical in nature. Legal research cannot focus solely on conceptual construction and theoretical coherence; it must also address the needs of judicial practice. Similarly, legal education cannot focus solely on cultivating theoretical talent; it must have a clear vocational education orientation. 

In recent years, the development of criminal law theory has been largely attributed to academic openness, the prosperity of translation work, and frequent international academic exchanges. The continuous influx of foreign criminal law theories has compensated for the lack of theoretical content in traditional criminal law. However, at the same time, many scholars, especially young scholars, have shown a tendency to detach from local judicial practice, indulging in theoretical systems centered on German and Japanese concepts. Future criminal law research should start from the practical characteristics of the legal discipline and balance criminal law theory with judicial practice. On one hand, theoretical concepts should be constructed that can guide and influence practice, addressing difficult problems in judicial practice. On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid falling into the trap of “transplanted doctrines,” or an over-reliance on foreign theories without a solid foundation in local practice and ideology. In summary, it is vital to develop a Chinese criminal law academic system with both theoretical depth and practical concerns, in line with the academic laws of specific legal fields.

At the same time, future criminal law teaching should increase the proportion of practical training. In reality, the proportion of law students who engage in academic work after graduation is extremely small—the majority become judges, prosecutors, lawyers, corporate legal advisors, or other practitioners. However, contrary to this academic positioning and actual demand, the current teaching systems in many law schools lack truly effective practical courses. 

While there may be many small seminars, their style is mostly academic debate at the theoretical level. Although practitioners are invited to give lectures, these are not designed and arranged according to effective teaching principles. They either become platforms for judicial officials to introduce their philosophies or forums for lawyers to share their professional experiences and sentiments. Thus, practical courses become packaged lectures, lacking the system and structure required for a course. Therefore, it is crucial to add practical teaching with the systematic nature of a curriculum to correct the drawbacks of theory being disconnected from practice and to avoid the deviation of legal education into excessive theoretical exploration dominated by scholar-type teachers.


Che Hao is a professor from Peking University Law School. 

Edited by WENG RONG