The uneven hand of the law (cont.)

My friend Eamonn Fingleton has emphasized that a key to understanding China’s partly controlled, partly out-of-control internal regime is the concept of “selective enforcement.” In principle, a large share of what people do each day violates some rule in some way. In practice, most rules go unenforced, and most people conduct their business without constant hassle from the authorities. The trick is that, whenever they choose, the authorities can start enforcing laws they had previously winked away, and suddenly people are in big trouble for “breaking” 16 different rules no one had cared about before.

This concept is not unique to China or to East Asia — think of Captain Renault’s “shocked, shocked” reaction to the discovery that gambling was going on in Casablanca.

But the overhang of generally-ignored laws that can be enforced to the letter when convenient is an important control mechanism in a number of Asian societies, including China. (Fingleton develops this concept in an upcoming book about China.)

There are countless illustrations — traffic laws, copyright and anti-piracy rules, workplace safety standards — but here is the latest daily-life case that has me wondering. As noted earlier, just last month the authorities in Shanghai were brusquely and without exceptions rousting small-time vendors from downtown areas, especially around People’s Square. The jewelry, trinkets, and other wares the vendors had laid out on their saffron-colored sales blankets were seized. The sales people were hustled off the sidewalks and in some cases taken into custody. What eventually happened to them and why, exactly, the boom was lowered then I still have no idea.

What I know is that, a month later, the vendors are back. Same saffron blankets, same trinkets, seemingly the same (often Tibetan) salespeople:

The same police are around too. A month ago, helping the civic authorities get rid of the vendors. Today, not even glancing at the vendors as they walk their beats. Who knows what they’ll do next month. I have new respect for the people I’ve met working on “rule of law” projects here.