Sunday, May 13, 2012

Does the Law Matter in China?

by Nicholas Bequelin

New York Times

May 13, 2012

Does the law matter in China? A cursory look at the two crises that have hit the Chinese government in recent weeks — one at the very top, with the purge of Bo Xilai, and one at the grassroots, with the escape from unlawful house arrest of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng — suggests not.

The two cases have in common an overt and blatant disregard for legality, an unwillingness of the central government to correct manifest injustices, and the notion that only U.S. diplomatic compounds are safe-havens in China.

Bo, the maverick princeling, turned a brutal anti-mafia campaign in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing into an instrument of personal power designed to garner popularity through swift “justice” and to eliminate political rivals. His suspension by the Party’s Central Committee came only after his police chief took refuge in the United States Consulate.

Chen, the dauntless rural activist from Shandong province, had attempted to use the existing legal system to expose wide-ranging abuses of power by local officials, only to be sentenced in 2006 to more than four years in prison on trumped-up charges by a local court. Upon his release in September 2010, local officials and hired thugs unlawfully kept him confined in his home. He too, after dramatically escaping his captors, sought refuge in a U.S. diplomatic enclave.

Both cases are widely seen as emblematic. Bo’s embodies the corruption of an unchecked political elite: Communist Party members are investigated by the party’s own disciplinary committee, and not by the courts. Chen’s case is rife with the predatory behavior of local officials whose conduct is more reminiscent of China’s feudal past than of the “new socialist countryside” Beijing leaders claim to be building.

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the law doesn't matter in China.