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China: Rule of law, sometimes
By Ram Gorni

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

In Chinese law, politics and business are linked together. Overseas, people still think of China as a monolithic state, ruled by the law and a larger-than-life autocrat whose diktats reverberate in the nation's farthest reaches. However, at present, after more than two decades of economic reform, and under the leadership of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China's centralized system has given way to clusters of fiefdoms operating outside Beijing's shrinking sphere of influence.

Reality shows that the Chinese communist bureaucracy of today is arranged so as not to give a large amount of power to one man. Furthermore, with or without Chinese characteristics, the Communist Party suggests no real ideological solution to the people. China has transformed from a straitjacketed but ordered society into another chaotic and corrupt developing country.

The ancient Chinese proverb, "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away," is ever more true nowadays. Hu Jintao's looming leadership looks irrelevant to the citizens, who answer to lower powers. Across northern China, for example, local officials are ignoring a more forgiving tax code championed by Beijing and instead are forcing peasants to pay exorbitant taxes on land that ceased to be fertile years ago. In other places such as Henan, Fujian and Gansu provinces, local bosses have taken central government funds for combating drugs, human smuggling and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and used them to build palatial homes. (1)

The violation of central government regulations by rural cadres has contributed to rising tension between farmers and the state, Xinhua editorials often admit. The agency berates rural officials for failing to observe most rural policies. Yet, despite the editorials' bluntness, the official news agency fails to offer a solution beyond urging cadres to spend more time studying central government regulations and improving policy implementation. (2)

Kinship groups have always been important in Chinese history. In 1949, after it came to power, the communist regime set about trying to destroy clan affiliations. As Mao Zedong saw it, preoccupation with ancient roots had little place in the new China. Clan patriarchs, who had accumulated land, wealth, prestige and even private armies in pre-1949 society, were stripped of assets and persecuted for their "bourgeois" inclinations. During the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, radical Red Guards destroyed clan temples, tortured landlords and burned the precious, hand-bound family genealogies, or jiapu, that many Chinese families had compiled for centuries. For three decades millions of Chinese tried to forget their roots.

Not anymore. Family ties are taking over now that the central government has relaxed its grip on rural economies. Clan power is making a comeback, and kinship ties are back in vogue. Clan temples are being renovated, often with the help of wealthy overseas Chinese compatriots. Clan elders have once again assumed political influence, especially in southern provinces such as Guangdong, Jiangxi and Hunan. (3)

In addition to the particular kinship ties, which are a significant factor in villages' power structure, in Chinese society in general there is a deeper sense of trust than in the United States, where most people trust an unknown policeman more than their neighbor. Chinese tend to think of close friends as family members, where everybody will take care of everybody else. In this milieu, people entrust others with their lives and those of their relatives. Criminal organizations, for example, are bound by a deep sense of trust and reliance on each other and to their surrounding township/countryside community.

The re-emergence of Chinese organized crime, or triads, is drawing attention to the rapid growth of crime and corruption. Moreover, the triad phenomenon is a global concern, as Chinese gangs are active in Paris, Rome and New York. Chinese officials and organized crime syndicates collaborate in a number of different ways. Many gangs use bribery and other methods to control officials or offered to protect their illicit business dealings. Officials have also been known to cultivate their own gangs by grooming local criminals. Some gangs have reportedly "hired" local officials for a particular purpose. Some local officials also employed gangsters to attack political rivals. In some cases, officials were heads of local gangs. In many cases officials used relatives to make contact with crime gangs. (4) For example, in June 2002, police who raided a birthday party thrown by a Chinese gangster got a surprise gift: 45 government officials found among the guests. (5)

The danger is that criminals create an economy parallel to the legal economy, creating entanglements that can influence the orderly proceedings of the official one. Criminals may develop political muscle to defend their illegal business interests that might bind and influence the international order, lending resources and safe havens to terrorists. The situation in China is complex because China is not a fully developed market society. Furthermore, the successful triads shed their criminal activities and turn completely legal. (6)

The lack of law obedience among many in China's vast society is also attributed to the increasing market competition and the growing domestic economic gap. After the collapse of the promised cradle-to-grave life-long protection, many citizens believe that under the open-market economy, their hard (honest) work is simply not enough to provide themselves with a decent income. Thus, breaking the law is a necessity for their own survival, in their opinion.

In addition, many view rich Chinese businessman as crooks, which, in many cases, is the truth. In recent months, for example, Chinese businessmen have come under the scrutiny of investigators. The media elaborate on these investigations of rich tycoons. Early last month, in one latest example, Hong Kong's graft-busting agency arrested the wife of one of China's richest men for suspected corruption. Mao Yuping, wife of Chinese property tycoon Zhou Zhengyi and chairwoman of Shanghai Merchants Holdings Ltd, was arrested along with 19 other people. The Shanghai government said it had launched a probe into Zhou's flagship firm, Shanghai Nongkai Development (Group) Co. Zhou, 42, was ranked in 2002 by Forbes magazine as China's 11th-richest person, with assets estimated at US$320 million, compared with $66 million a year earlier. The businessman rose from a noodle-shop owner to head a business empire spanning real estate to finance. (7)

Compared with the chaotic Cultural Revolution, it can be argued that in the 1980s, China began reimplementing its system of law. By 2002-03, China improved much in the way of its rule of law. The People's Daily reported on March 20: "Twenty-plus years of hard work on legislation has brought China a relatively complete legal system, which has played a significant role in safeguarding the healthy development of China's market economy" ("China, land of opportunity for foreign-trained lawyer"). The country's official English-language flagship reported on March 17: "Senior legal scholars claimed the country is well on track to complete a comprehensive legal system, with specific Chinese characteristics, by 2010 ... 'It is possible for China to reach the goal in five or six years if the legislators work in the right direction', said Xu Xianming, president of China University of Politics and Law ..." (China Daily, "Legal system on the right track").

However, in China, there is a problem when the law meets authority. If a case arises between two normal people, then the law is somewhat powerful. But if one person is a company official or from the government, then there is no power in the law. Business people know that if they have bought political backing, they can get investigations into their affairs called off and stories in the state media killed (8, 9).

Despite reams of laws written by Beijing over the past two decades, one prominent foreign lawyer in China believes the rule of law has actually weakened. By 1997, she says, she encountered Chinese judges who wanted to build a truly fair legal system. But in 2000, the Communist Party quietly instructed courts to consider the nation's interests first and moved independent-minded justices out of power (10).

Worsening the rule of law in China is the fact that many in China see smuggling, bribes and piracy as victimless crimes, and thus tolerated. (Bribes and success mean almost the same thing.) The gap in perceptions highlights the difficulties the Chinese government faces as it tries to curb corruption. As China is becoming a leading global trading partner, the lack of law among the government and the citizens is also becoming an important problem worldwide. This problem must not be ignored.

(1), August 1, 2002: "The emperor is far away"
(2) South China Morning Post, July 18, 2002: "Harsh rural cadres receive a roasting"
(3), September 29, 2002: "China's family ties"
(4) SCMP, September 9, 2002: "Cadre-triad ties may spell disaster, says NPC"
(5) CNN, June 17, 2002: "China officials caught at gangster's party"
(6) Asia Times Online, April 18, 2002: The triads and emerging legality in China 
(7) Yahoo, June 3, 2003: "China tycoon's wife arrested, company probed"
(8), October 24, 2002: "Rank corruption"
(9), November 6, 2002: "Thriving in the Middle Kingdom"
(10), October 2, 2002: "Making it in China"

Ram Gorni operates China World News provides a panoramic updated view on contemporary China by editing English-language news pieces taken from various sources (domestic and international) in order to view the bigger picture.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please
click here if you are interested in contributing.
Jul 3, 2003

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