Although this week's Rio Tinto case focused world attention on China's domestic legal system, it also raised doubts about a rising China's adherence to its international legal commitments. After the People's Republic began to represent China in the United Nations in October 1971, it steadily increased its participation in the development of international law.
Despite continuing grave violations of existing international standards for protecting civil and political rights, China's overall direction in international law, at least until recently, has seemed progressive. Now, however, an old, nationalistic tone has begun to mark its criminal prosecutions of foreigners as well as of Chinese dissidents, often explained with vague references to "judicial sovereignty" without further elucidation.
This may reflect the setbacks that China's domestic criminal justice system has suffered since the 17th Communist Party Congress introduced tougher policies and personnel in late 2007. It may also reflect a change in the Chinese government's attitude towards international law in the light of its growing influence on the world stage. In any event, it is a development worthy of attention.