Is There a Chinese Common Law? An Empirical Study of the Bilingual Common-Law System of Hong Kong


  • I thank Abigail Johnson for the excellent background research she did on the topic. I am grateful to an anonymous referee and the editors of JELS for helpful comments on an earlier version of the article. This research received financial support from Academic Senate, University of California, San Diego.

Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0533; email:


This study presents results of the first empirical study of the role of Chinese in the newly established bilingual common-law system of Hong Kong. It considers whether Chinese performs the same role as English in the influential appellate court of Hong Kong. The study examines three facets of civil appeal. First, it asks if civil appeals conducted in Chinese exhibit the same level of legal representation as civil appeals in English. Second, it examines the likelihood of being professionally published among appeal judgments in the two languages. Third, it compares the financial stakes involved in Chinese and English appeals. The results suggest that despite what is stipulated in the Hong Kong Constitution, Chinese plays a marginal role in the higher courts of Hong Kong. There is no substantive development of a Chinese common law in Hong Kong. Instead, the availability of Chinese creates easier but problematic access to the legal system by the public in the form of pro se litigants. The findings also show that the reasons leading to the continued dominance of the English language in Hong Kong are global and social. As such, English is unlikely to be replaced in many postcolonial common-law systems in the world.