2004 December 28 Tuesday
Will China Develop Rule Of Law And Press Freedoms?

Philip P. Pan of the Washington Post has written a very interesting article on a court case over a lawsuit brought by Fuyang China party secretary against two authors of a book that makes corruption and abuse of power charges against the party secretary and other party officials.

More than a quarter-century after launching economic reforms while continuing to restrict political freedom, the Chinese Communist Party remains in firm control of the courts. Most judges are party members, appointed by party leaders and required to carry out party orders. But the government's claims of support for legal reform and human rights, and an influx of information about Western legal concepts, have fueled public demands for a more independent judiciary.

China's citizens are asserting their rights and going to court in record numbers. About 4.4 million civil cases were filed in the last year, more than double the total a decade ago. Behind this surge in legal activity is a belief that everyone, even party officials, can be held accountable under the law, a belief promoted by a new generation of lawyers, judges and legal scholars trained after the death of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

The party appears torn by this rising legal consciousness. It recognizes the value of an impartial judicial system to resolve disputes in a country with growing social tensions and an emerging capitalist economy, and it sees the potential of citizen lawsuits to curb corruption and improve governance. But it is also afraid that rule of law and independent courts might threaten its monopoly on power.

This report addresses what is perhaps the most important issue for determining how far China's industrialization can go: will China have independent courts that protect the rights of individual Chinese citizens from the tyranny of all levels of officialdom? Will China get rule of law or will it continue to have rule of bureaucrats? It is an enormously important question for China and for the world as a whole.

This article provides an account of a court case brought by a local party secretary Zhang Xide against the authors of a book which documented the corruption of Chinese officials. A sharp attorney defending the writers used the need to prove the accuracy of the book to turn the court case effectively into a trial of Zhang Xide. The judges that presided over this case refuse to announce a decision because they do not want to anger their superiors by ruling against the party secretary and yet they also do not want to anger the peasants.

Pu ended with a subtle plea to the judges to defy their party superiors.

"Obviously, there is room for you to be creative," he said. "If you are appropriately creative, your efforts and morals will lead society toward the further development of civilization and democracy. Your names will go down in history. . . . Your judgment will show whether the judiciary in China can shoulder its responsibility to promote the development of society."

But the lawyers said the judges have told them they cannot decide the case, which suggests that higher-level party officials are involved. The party's deliberations have been complicated because accounts of the trial have been published on the Internet and in Hong Kong. In a sign of the party's indecision, several officials have contacted the authors and their attorneys and urged them to settle the case.

So far, the authors have refused. "Settling isn't an option," Chen said recently. "We've come this far. We want a verdict."

One question is what will happen about issues relating to freedom of the press. My guess is that the Chinese government is not going to allow total unrestricted criticism of the government. However it is conceivable that the higher levels of the Chinese government might decide to instruct judges to allow local officials to be criticised while still telling them to protect higher level officials against writings by reporters and book authors.

Another question is about rule of law for doing business. Will the Chinese government instruct the courts to protect businesses against the predations of government officials? Will contract enforcement be fairly uniform regardless of whether some business has sons of important officials in management? Just how far China can develop economically depends in large part on whether contracts are enforceable and whether businesses can operate free of extortion by corrupt officials.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 December 28 02:59 AM  China

PacRim Jim said at December 28, 2004 3:31 AM:

China already has the rule of law, as defined by the Communist Party.

noone said at December 28, 2004 4:56 AM:

"Obviously, there is room for you to be creative," he said. "If you are appropriately creative, your efforts and morals will lead society toward the further development of civilization and democracy."

Yep,creative judges and their morals have done wonders for Democracy here,uh huh.

I may be wrong(and probably am)but I don't see communists allowing their power to be diffused this way.

Stephen said at December 28, 2004 8:18 PM:

I'm very hopeful for China. Much of its economy is transitioning to being free market based, and growth is still racing ahead (9% growth in a bad year!!). It is developing rapidly, but is easily paying for that development with massive export growth. My guess is that it'll replace the United States as the dominant economy in 30 years - maybe sooner if the United States' currency has a bit of a hicup.

And having the dominant economy means that China will be able to afford to become the dominant military. That said, they're not expansionist the way the soviets were, they have secure borders, they don't suffer from soviet paranoia and they don't have a military/industrial complex to support, so I think they won't make the mistake of over capitalising in non-productive military.

Also, it looks like population growth is under control - leveling out even.

That said, its not all roses. They have a growing wealth gap between the rich and poor, and between those living in the east of the country and the inland. There is rapid urbanisation from the poor rural areas, and this will lead to large numbers of urban poor.

gc said at December 29, 2004 12:00 AM:
"I read the book carefully, and it made me furious," Pu recalled. The stories reminded him of his own experiences in the countryside; only a decade earlier, officials enforcing the government's one-child policy had forced his sister-in-law to abort a pregnancy in the ninth month.

People need to understand the reality of Communism.

noone said at December 29, 2004 5:01 AM:

"That said, they're not expansionist the way the soviets were, they have secure borders, they don't suffer from soviet paranoia and they don't have a military/industrial complex to support"

Excuse me?
You are talking about the same China?

The China that intends to "reunite the Motherland"?

The China that helps keep Kashmir at a low boil?

The China that is actively encouraging illegal immigration into Siberia?

The China occupying the Spratly Islands with military forces?

The China that is supporting the Sudan regime?

The Chinese state claims legititacy on 2 pillars,economic growth and jingoistic ethnic nationalism.

"looks like population growth is under control - leveling out even"
Actually,they face the same demographic decline we do,but they don't have our wealth to cushion them.

"growth is still racing ahead (9% growth in a bad year!!)"

And you belive these statistics?Why?
Even people who have poured billions into China admit every number that comes out of there is a fraud(and that should scare you,the degree of self-delusion even among proffesional money people scares the hell out of me)

There is a good chance China will make it over the Hump,but there is a very good chance it won't.If economic growth,real or ortherwise,tanks,look for a Falklands gambit to divert attention.

Stephen said at December 29, 2004 5:33 PM:

Well, I didn't say they were perfect...

noone said at December 30, 2004 6:29 AM:

And if you think I'm overly pessimistic:


"China's angry young focus their hatred on old enemy"

"Anti-Japanese fury is rising among internet users - a trend the state is keen to encourage"

yeah,yeah,the Guardian,but.............

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