For an answer to this question I looked up some passages in The Book of Lord Shang
, a classic of ancient Chinese political philosophy:
The fact that penalties are heavy makes rank the more honourable, and the fact that rewards are light makes punishments the more awe-inspiring. If rank is honoured, the ruler loves the people, and if punishments are so awe-inspiring, the people will die for their ruler. Therefore, in a prosperous coutnry, the people profit by the application of penalties, and by the distribution of rewards the ruler will gain credit.
If the law goes into details, the punishments will be mulitudinous; if the laws are multitudinous, punishments will be scarce. (...) It is the nature of the people to be orderly, but it is circumstances that cause disorder. Therefore, in the application of punishments, light offences should be regarded as serious; if light offences do not occur, serious ones have no chance of coming. This is said to be 'ruling the people while in a state of law and order.'
If, in the application of punishments, serious offenses are regarded as serious, and light offenses as light. light offenses will not cease and in consequence, there will be no means of stopping the serious ones. This is said to be 'ruling the people while in a state of lawlessness.' So, if light offences are regarded as serious, punishments will be abolished, affairs will succeed and the country will be strong; but if serious offences are regarded as serious and light ones as light, then punishments will appear; moreover, trouble will arise and the country will be dismembered.
To summarize, what appears to be being advocated here is an emphasis on ridiculously (well, unfairly) strict laws to deter offenses, or the "If we decapitate thieves, no one will steal bread" school of thought without circumstantial thought for the desperation of a parent with starving children or why hunger exists in the first place. Unfair, yes, but similar to Mayor Giuliani's recent policy in New York City of cracking down harshly on the "small crimes" (jaywalking, graffiti) to dispel the aura of criminality in a place where until recently, people flagrantly and constantly violated the small laws.
The policy in NYC seems to have been having net positive effects for the city (if not for the rights of its citizens), thus this mentality can't be taken as the sheer insanity it might initially comes off as, which is Bad laws don't cause lack of respect for the law if you kill everyone who disrespects the law. Only ones respectful of the bad law will be left.
Now wait a second: isn't there something wrong with misinterpreting the law to deliberately apply unjustly high punishments? (That sounds like it falls well within the category of "bad law" as asked in the node title even if it's literally "bad justice".) Not, according to this text, if you wish to maintain a strong state:
If the law is crooked, order turns into disorder; if reliance is placed on virtue, there is much talking; if government measures are numerous, the state is in disorder; and if there is much talking, the army is weak. But if the law is clear, government measures are limited; if reliance is placed on force, talking ceases; if covernment measures are limited, the country enjoys orderly administration; and if talking ceases, the army is strong.
Therefore, in ruling a great country it becomes small, and in ruling a small country it becomes great. If the government takes such measures as the people hate, the people are made weak; and if it takes such measures as the people like, the people are made strong. But a weak people means a strong state, and a strong people means a weak state. If the government takes such measures as the people like, they are made strong, and if strong people are made even stronger, the army becomes doubly weak; but if the government takes such measures as the people hate, they are made weak, and if weak people are made even weaker, the army becomes doubly strong. Therefore, by strengthening the people one becomes doubly weak and perishes; by weakening the people one becomes doubly strong and attains supremacy.
A lack of grounding in such material results in western politicians and governments often viewing the Chinese government's actions as nothing less than nutty. Nutty, yes, but nutty as dictated by ancient and traditional texts!