“Rule by Law” Reform
Stability, modernization, and success as a globalized 21st Century state are goals for which the Chinese government is reaching.
However, a culture of weak intellectual property rights and “Rule by Law” rather than the “Rule of Law” present unique challenges. In China, modernization means more choices for the common people. As choices become attainable, common people often clash with established authority.
Inspired by the Shanghai police officer stabbing case, I examine approaches China might take to deal with lawlessness and to craft “pressure valves” to permit its system to adapt and to address emerging challenges. (Note: The NYT had an excellent series on “Rule by Law.”)
The Pressure Builds
When people feel powerless, they can take out their aggression against public authority figures. In Shanghai, one man sought “revenge after officers from the station interrogated him last year for riding an unlicensed bicycle.” He “sued the officers who had interrogated him for psychological damage, but the claim was rejected,” and ultimately he attacked a police station and stabbed six officers to death.
What drove Mr. Yang to such an act? People wonder if “injustices carried out by the Shanghai police” led to his brazen action. Some postulated that his genitals had been damaged by the police (AP), others assumed less or more vicious forms of punishment. Others argue Yang was just insane.
Option 1: Ignoring the Situation
What is important, however, is not the status of Yang’s guilt or innocence, but the reaction of Southern Weekend, a Chinese newspaper, and those of a number of Chinese. When the trial was held behind closed doors, some people clamoured for it to be heard in the light of day so people could know the trial was conducted fairly. The case concluded behind closed doors despite their protests, and Yang was sentenced to death. He is currently appealing the decision.
Closed-door trials can work, but if people believe the government is abusing power, then support for the government can decrease. For a system to work “above the heads” of the common people, the common people must either trust the government is morally superior, intellectually superior, or both. And with rising education and wealth spreading across China, more and more people are beginning to doubt whether or not the Communist Party really has all of China’s “best and brightest.” Still, in a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 89% of Chinese were polled as satisfied with their government. Interestingly, only 34% were satisfied with their own life. There is possibility that as more Chinese become middle class, they will begin to demand the government “help” them more so they can achieve happiness. Comparatively, the US numbers were 51% and 65% [h/t Mei-Zhong Guanxi]).
This article by Prof. Carl Minzer suggests an attempted governmental cover-up of social unrest.
Option 2: Expanding Rights
Discontent directed against closed trials, presumed abuse-of-authority and lack of disclosure is bubbling stronger and stronger with nearly 87,000 “mass incident” protests in 2006, even though by all measures, Chinese citizens’ legal rights are expanding. “[T]his summer, criminal defense lawyers got the right to meet with their clients without official permission, request evidence from prosecutors and call witnesses in court” (AP). And that is in addition to China’s Labor Contract Law (June 2008) (Also see HERE), and its Property Law (2007), both of which expanded citizens’ rights and remedies.
These laws have spurred citizens to litigate. China Law Blog noted that in the wake of the Labor Contract Law; “[s]ince last year, labor disputes have increased in Beijing’s Chaoyang District People’s Court by 106%, by 231% in Nanjing’s Qinhuai District People’s Court, 126% in Shenzhen, 132% in Dongguan and 92% in Guangzhou.”
Option 3: Stop-Gap Patches
Weng’an County’s riots, proximately precipitated by a girl’s drowning, provide another example of China struggling to deal with accountability in the midst of a system that regrettably allows a good deal of opportunity for corruption and abuse-of-power.
Often, China’s central authorities deal with injustices and abuse-of-power by applying stop-gap fixes, like dismissing the Weng’an Party commissar and police chief. But finding ringleaders or scapegoats will only succeed in quashing corruption and abuse if the Chinese system is not plagued by systemic problems.
It appears, based on the NYT articles and prior unrest, that China’s “rule by law” may result in significant systemic problems. Still, the Chinese could prove Western analysts incorrect; their problem may not be systemic- even though 87,000 mass incidents in 2006 seem to imply the problem is widespread and beyond possibility of being addressed by stop-gap fixes.
Societies in socioeconomic and legal flux are presented with unique problems. In the 18th Century, the French system exploded into rioting and unrest. Louis XVI and his regime were overthrown, and in their wake, there was chaos. In 20th Century Russia, the Tsar was brought down, likewise in flames, even though he, like Louis XVI, was by some measures “liberalizing” the country in steps. In contrast, China’s path to modernity could be more like that taken by the United States in the early 20th Century.
In the United States, the late 19th and early 20th Century saw the expansion of rights for millions of previously oppressed groups that culminated with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. A system of “rule of law” and an understanding by citizens, judges, lawyers, and juries of what that means took nearly 200 years to develop (and is still developing) in the United States.
Over the course of a century, America confronted turmoil with first the Progressive Movement, and later the Civil Rights Movement. In China, it can be argued that a “rights reform” movement is already underway. China often likes to describe how it is “different” and “unique” (Fool’s Mountain has an opinion on this phenomena.), so perhaps it will not suffer the social upheaval of 1960s-America or Industrial Age Europe.
Regardless of any perceived differences, China will still need to confront problems similar to those suffered by these countries as the Chinese people gain wealth, leisure time, become more involved in the market, gain greater mobility, and discover political power.
Hukou registration saw reform in 2003 after public outcry reacted to an embarassing situation where a legal city resident was beaten to death by police officers during questioning. At least lip-service to further reform continues (March 4, 2008). [The Chinese Law and Politics Blog, by Prof. Carl Minzer has a discussion on difficulties surrounding hukou reform.]
To respond to people’s demands for more attention and more autonomy, the government will choose whether to expand rule of law; encourage people to accept the status quo (which appears to be increasingly less likely an option); or close off influences that encourage the common Chinese 老百姓 to demand greater power.
Lawlessness might result from a society that fails to create a pressure-release valve for pent-up emotions. Rule of Law would allow China to follow the path taken by Europe and the United States. It will be interesting to see which choice China takes.
* Or is this really a dualistic “either/or” choice of increasing lawlessness/tension or ultimate reform toward “rule of law” in China? Will China turn insular again if it must confront chaos? I welcome your opinions on the subject in the Comments.
* EastSouthNorthWest almost always has the most in-depth stories regarding mass incidents in China, if you’re interested in doing further research on that issue.
* Previously, in Rule of Law, I discussed why establishing a legal culture in China is key to ensuring “human rights” and to empowering individuals.