America's Edge: China's Socialist System of Laws With Chinese Characteristics

(photo credit: James Fallows)

I had to laugh when I saw this post by my colleague James Fallows noting that the US edition of China Daily now had a news-box right outside our offices at The Atlantic.

I had just returned from China yesterday and was in town for a few hours before having to take off again so I grabbed a China Daily to catch up on what China wanted us folks at the Watergate to know about all things Middle Kingdom.

I think that there are occasionally some terrific, serious articles in the state-run paper, but very frequently Fallows is right that a good number of them give The Onion a run for its money.

This article is a case in point of a retired factor worker in China vowing to continue a quest to cash a $10 million treasury bond "despite being told that the document is an obvious fake."

Lines like this are priceless:

"This is a conspiracy by the United States government," [the worker] said from his suburban home in Weifang, East China's Shandong province. "I know they (the US) won't want to admit this so I will go to Beijing to seek help from television (media) and scholars."


"The dollar bond may be counterfeit but I still don't think my father and grandfather cheated me," he added firmly.


"I want to cooperate with someone who can help me," he said. "I was planning to trade this (the US Treasury bond) in for some money so I can live a better life, and then donate the rest to the country."

But what surprised me most about the issue I took with me on the plane is that the editors decided to print in full -- every last word -- of a densely written "White Paper on the Socialist System of Laws with Chinese Characteristics" issued by the Information Office of the State Council.  The piece ran with a smaller than normal font over five full pages of the newspaper.  The headline for the piece:  "Socialist Democracy Milestone."

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Help me if I ever see those words again.

The white paper is so riddled with meaningless, fuzzy gobbledygook on what China's evolving legal system is that one can only wonder what the intention of publishing it was.  If it was to assure English-speaking China hands and China-interested folks around the world that coherent and impartial rule of law is ascendant in China, this was a significant step backward.  Read it - and sleep.

Perhaps the most clearly articulated and yet disturbing graph of the unnecessarily nearly never-ending white paper is this:

The nature of a country's legal system depends on the nature of its social system established in law. China is a socialist country under the people's democratic dictatorship, led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants. In the primary stage of socialism, China practices a basic economic system with public ownership as the mainstay and the joint development of diverse forms of ownership, which determines that China's legal institutions are bound to be socialist ones and that China's legal system is bound to be a socialist one with Chinese characteristics. All legal norms covered in and all legal institutions established by the socialist legal system contribute to consolidating and developing socialism, reflect the people's common aspirations, safeguard their fundamental interests and make sure that the people are the masters of their own country. China proceeds from the essential requirement of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the will and long-term interests of the people in making its laws and determining the relevant provisions. The aim and outcome of all the work of the state are to realize, safeguard and expand the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people.

I did make it to the end of the document -- though have to admit to three naps and glazed eye syndrome on the way. 

Then near the end the document began to suggest a few 'interesting' things.

Some of these were:

1.  Admission that China is at a "critical stage" in deepening reform and opening up -- and "building a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way".  The paper says that China needs a better legal system to support this prosperity agenda.  (but the 15,000 words that preceded this admission don't help in that mission from my perspective)

2.  The paper says that to assure scientific and economic advancement, "there is a rising demand for more scientific and democratic legislation, as increasingly diversified stakeholders and complicated interest patterns make it harder to regulate social interests through legislation."  This is a call for more democratic practice inside the socialist dictatorship of the people -- contradictory yes -- but fascinating tension and a confession perhaps that the central state apparatus is not able to decide on its own what works best for what stakeholders.

3.  This slice commits to further democratization steps at the local level:

China will take active measures to strengthen legislation on socialist democracy. In order to meet the requirements of actively yet steadily advancing political reform, we will improve legal institutions concerning election, self-governance among people at the grassroots level and organization of state organs.

The last graph of the section is both accurate and ominous at the same time:

The vitality of laws lies in their enforcement. The formation of the socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics has generally solved the basic problem of having laws for people to follow. Now, the problem of ensuring that laws are observed and strictly enforced and that lawbreakers are prosecuted has become more pronounced and pressing. Therefore, China will take active and effective steps to guarantee the effective enforcement of the Constitution and laws, and accelerate the advance of the rule of law and the building of a socialist country under the rule of law.

One sees the "strict enforcement" of "laws with Chinese characteristics" against such people as artist Ai Weiwei,  Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and his jailed wife Liu Xia.  To be fair, Chinese prisons are also filled with real law breakers, corrupt government officials on the wrong side of the power line, narco-gang chiefs, financial fraudsters, drunk drivers, and petty thieves, rapists, and thugs.  Some who have fallen afoul of the law because of 'thought violations' about the nature of the democracy they want and expressed in email and social networks are also those who may feel the full force of the still too ambiguous Chinese legal system being 'strictly enforced' against them.

But spend a few days in Beijing as I recently did as a guest of the China-United States Exchange Foundation and one will see a collage of important, excellent new trends in which those who work for the state have been told to adopt a posture of "serving" the people rather than "managing" them -- combined with the rude reality that privilege of driving a black audi with dark windows and a senior party license plate, very often the children of powerful state officials, means that you can do no wrong and can escape the legal gravitational forces that others have to try and live by. 

I do applaud China's efforts to try and create 'demand' for a more fair and less discriminatory legal system.  This White Paper does not achieve that; it makes things more obscure -- and to some degree, The State Council Information Office and China Daily deserve credit for so clearly making obvious that China has a very long way to go.

It's nice to discover at least one key area in which the United States still has a clear edge.