Twenty years ago, few would have predicted that China's legal system would have developed to the degree that it has. Given the remarkable progress, sceptics who deny any fundamental change in the basic nature of the system seem unduly pessimistic or cynical. By contrast, liberals who think China is on the way to establishing a liberal legal system of the kind found in Western democracies seem at once overly optimistic and not fully cognisant of differences in fundamental values that have led many Asian countries to resist the influence of liberalism in favour of their own brand of 'Asian values'. There may be a middle ground. While the footprint of the system's instrumental rule-by-law heritage remains visible, there is considerable evidence of a shift towards a system with the basic elements of a thin rule of law. Yet there is little evidence of a shift towards a rule of law understood to entail democracy and a liberal version of human rights that gives priority to civil and political rights. Accordingly, we need to take seriously alternative conceptions to a liberal democratic rule of law. China is more likely to adopt a statist socialist, neo-authoritarian and communitarian version of rule of law than it is to adopt a liberal democratic one. In many ways, legal reforms are in a similar state to that of economic reforms 10 years ago. After Tiananmen in 1989 and before Deng Xiaoping's trip south in 1992, when he threw his considerable political weight behind further reforms, China stood poised between a centrally planned economy and a market economy. Conservative forces opposed further reforms and hoped, against all odds, to turn back the tide. Nevertheless, reformers have prevailed. Even though the future path of reforms was not clear at the time, and reforms have progressed in an incremental fashion, there has been steady progress towards a market economy, despite some setbacks along the way and enduring problems. China's long march towards the rule of law is likely to proceed in much the same way as the transition to a market economy - steadily, despite opposition and the occasional setback. To the extent possible, the ruling regime will rely on incremental changes through a series of local experiments. While not ignoring the lessons from the experiences of other countries, reformers will be driven primarily by domestic factors and considerations in determining the pace and content of reforms. Even in the eyes of the harshest critics, China's legal system has come a long way in just over 20 years. Two decades of reform have produced remarkable changes in institutions, laws and practices. It is true that there are still many problems with the legal system. But this is widely acknowledged in China, and efforts are being made to address them. Establishing a well-functioning legal system is a monumental task, one made all the more difficult by the particular obstacles confronting legal reformers in China. What accounts then for the wide discrepancy between the remarkable progress that China has made in establishing a viable legal order and the exceedingly negative portraits of the legal system? The role of the media is one factor. The Western media's coverage of China's legal system (and, arguably, China as a whole) is overwhelmingly negative. The focus tends to be on human rights violations and the plight of individual dissidents, victims of torture and other injustices, with Western journalists often imposing their own values. While there are clear violations of international human rights law and China's own domestic laws, international human rights law is much less definitive on many important issues than generally assumed by non-lawyers. Needless to say, there is a need to report rights violations and other injustices, but not to the exclusion of other important developments. Violations of civil and political rights concern only one aspect of the legal system, and probably not the most important aspect for many people within China, who are more concerned about their property rights or getting a divorce. Yet even in reporting on commercial law, the popular media tends to highlight shortcomings in the system and to give prominent play to problematic cases rather than those in which the legal system performed as designed. The foreign business community - consisting of foreign business executives and their trusty sidekick, the expatriate lawyer, and many others who do business in China or advise those doing business on the mainland - has played an important role in shaping the negative image of the legal system. Foreign business people and their lawyers tend to focus on more immediate practical issues than do legal academics. While the latter are interested in issues such as the compatibility of rule of law with socialism and the historical continuity of the legal system, the former are interested primarily in operational issues and obstacles to turning a profit. The more micro-level focus of those in the business community often reveals ways in which China's legal system differs from the legal system of their home countries, usually - in their eyes - for the worse. While, on good days, they will acknowledge that China's legal system has made considerable progress in the last 20 years, the dominant theme for many is that the system remains so riddled with problems that it is questionable whether it makes sense to even speak of the system in terms of rule of law. Business people and lawyers are more likely to turn to the media to complain when the system fails to function as they expect it to, or at least hope it would. Conversely, when all goes smoothly, they are likely to take it for granted. Furthermore, the views of lawyers are likely to reflect their own experiences. The billing rates of lawyers from major international firms are very high. Hence, companies are unlikely to seek the advice of outside counsel except on cutting-edge projects or complicated issues where the law is unclear or there are other obstacles involved. Thus, lawyers are likely to encounter the tough cases rather than the easy ones. Of course, China is a huge place. There may be some areas where problems are becoming more severe, such as corruption, lack of resources and the overloading of courts in some places. But the general trend is clearly positive. Randy Peerenboom is a professor at UCLA School of Law in Los Angeles and author of China's Long March Toward Rule of Law.