Friday, July 20, 2018

Life in China, the rule of law

Christopher spent "nine years working for the HSBC Business School of Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School as a professor teaching international trade, negotiations, and ethics". His contract was not renewed and he is now leaving. He has written an interesting essay about his time there. This is a segment:
One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights. In China, line cutting is considered nearly standard operating procedure. There is a common and accepted respect for others even if just it is as simple as standing in line.

In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.

I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways. Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.

I had a lawyer tell me about the corruption crackdown, and even most convicted of crimes, that people referred to them as “unlucky”. As he noted, there was almost no concept of justice even if people recognized the person had done what they were accused of having done. The discipline stemmed not from their behavior but they were cannon fodder for some game chosen by a higher authority.

China wrestles with these issues like clockwork every few years after a tragic incident goes viral. A common one is when someone is run over by a car and pedestrians just step over the body until a family member finds the body. The video goes viral, prompts a week of hand wringing, and then censors step in to talk about Confucianism and how the economy is growing. There is no innate value given to human life as precious.

A friend of mine in China who is a Christian missionary, told me a story about a time he was invited to speak at the local English corner they had in the apartment development where locals would get together hopefully with foreigners and practice English. He was asked to speak on what is the meaning of life, perfect for a part time missionary. He said he knew what people would say having lived in China for sometime but even so was stunned at how deeply and rigidly held the belief that making money was the entire meaning of life. There was no value system. There was no exogenously held right or wrong, only whether you made money. With apologies to a bastardized Dostoevsky, with money as God, all is permissible.

I could talk at length about that what I have observed, but I am not a human rights expert and what type of cultural changes or evolution it engenders. However, while the well known cases draw attention, these attitudes and responses set the tone for a culture where individuals, respect, and truth mean nothing.

This has impacted my broader thinking in that executive space (thinking of the United States but also applicable elsewhere) is that laws need to be enforced consistently not at the whim of the superior. If the law exists it should be enforced and consistent, otherwise it should be removed. Currently, the United States is going further and further in a direction where laws are applied inconsistently shifting from varying enforcement regimes under different executives. Law is not law if the government can choose whether to enforce it. Law has become the whimsy of sovereigns prone to political fancy.
H/t Tyler Cowen.


  1. "In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored."

    Interestingly the question here is Chairman Xi's emphasis on law a method of securing social dominance, i.e. the idea of civil justice here would be social control.

    Chinese law is fascinating historically given it's emphasis on mediation/ conciliation

    Interesting paper on the historical background of 'tiaojie', particularly given the western perspective of the essay. Well worth a read given the essays absence here.

    "Chinese Mediation on the Eve of Modernization"

  2. "I had a lawyer tell me about the corruption crackdown."

    The crackdown is a preferred method of policing. Local party big cheese comes to town so the police have a crackdown on illegal street food sellers (or whatever). When the party officials leave things return to normal food sellers go back on the street and go back to paying protection to the local officials who have just smashed there stall and beaten them in the street.

    If nothing else it very clearly tells you who is in charge.

    Legal crackdown seems central in regard to maintaining power and authority in America.

    Strange reversal in this situation between foreign and domestic policy. i.e. Dems. move from conciliation in regard to immigration to hard hitting on Russia.

    "Mirror mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all?"
    Definition: 'fair is foul and foul is fair'