China: Rule of law,
By Ram Gorni
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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.
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.
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.
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
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) time.com, August
1, 2002: "The emperor is far away"
(2) South China
Morning Post, July 18, 2002: "Harsh rural cadres receive
(3) msnbc.com, September 29, 2002:
"China's family ties"
(4) SCMP, September 9, 2002:
"Cadre-triad ties may spell disaster, says NPC"
CNN, June 17, 2002: "China officials caught at
(6) Asia Times Online, April 18,
2002: The triads and emerging legality in
(7) Yahoo, June 3, 2003: "China
tycoon's wife arrested, company probed"
October 24, 2002: "Rank corruption"
November 6, 2002: "Thriving in the Middle
(10) usnews.com, October 2, 2002: "Making it
Ram Gorni operates ChinaWN.com. 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.