On March 3, just days ahead of the opening of the annual “two meetings” of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) responded to concerns over mistreatment of foreign journalists in China by issuing a warning. “Don’t use the law as a shield,” she said. “The real problem,” Jiang elaborated, “is that there are people who want to see the world in chaos. They want to make trouble in China. For people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.”
Just one week later, in the midst of the “two meetings,” China’s top legislator, Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), declared that a “socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics” has already been fully established in China — an achievement he lauded as a “major milestone.”
But for many legal experts in China watching developments in recent months and years, statements like those made by Jiang Yu on March 3 expose a basic disregard for laws among some officials that underscores just how far China has yet to go.
In its latest edition, released last Thursday, Guangdong’s Southern Weekend ran an editorial by Chen Youxi (陈有西) that is clearly a direct response to Jiang Yu’s remark to foreign journalists on behalf of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A partial translation of the editorial follows:
“The Law Should Be Everyone’s Shield”
March 17, 2011
Chen Youxi (陈有西)
During the “Cultural Revolution” there was nothing left of the law, and this caused the entire nation to slide into civil strife. Injustice prevailed everywhere, and even the chairman of the republic [Liu Shaoqi] could not be protected. To a large extent it was in drawing lessons from this tragedy that our past 30 years of opening and reform have been not just 30 years of economic reform, but also 30 years of rapid development in building a legal system. Our legal provisions are now more or less complete, and the problem of having no statutes to apply has basically been resolved. And so, during the “two meetings” this year, chairman Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) solemnly declared that a socialist system of laws has been basically established. The general consensus in society now is that the goal in the present era is to move from having relevant laws to ensuring that these are observed and strictly enforced.
The focus in the present era is already on normalizing the [exercise of] authority by means of the law. The crux of ruling the nation according to the law is controlling officials according to the law, and controlling power according to the law. In this particular historical period, clashes in legal thought have become complex, and there are some rather unharmonious strains. During the “two meetings” this year, some officials declared: “The law should not be used as a shield.” This presented a stark contrast with the solemn declaration that our legal system has been basically established. [The remarks] drew some glances, and caused some to realize just how difficult the transition to rule of law is.
“The law should not be used as a shield” is perhaps just a momentary slip of the tongue, but it reveals the hidden thoughts of a number of officials, and it is worrisome. It gives people the impression that China’s legal system is little more than a slogan or an accessory, something that can be used when it suits the purpose. When the government requires the law, the law can serve as a set of mandatory rules the population must respect; when it seems the law restrains one’s hand, it can be set aside. It’s as though the law is one-directional, serving to check the population but not to check power. If the law comes to be used as a tool, then clearly it is seen as something without sacred importance and not deserving of reverence — just as something utilitarian.
. . .
Right now there’s a saying going around in the legal world [in China], that rule of law is in retreat. People may have different views on whether or not rule of law is really retrogressing, but the legal consciousness of some officials in China today is certainly moving backward. This is a fact. This is not just about some people declaring, in defiance of the main theme at the “two meetings” this year that our legal system has basically been built, that “the law should not be used as a shield,” or that, “[For people with these kinds of motives,] I think no law can protect them.” But other shocking remarks frequently pop out of the mouths [of officials]. Things like, “Are you speaking for the Party, or for the people?”Or, “Without forced demolition there would be no New China.” Or, “Going against the government, that’s wicked.” Or, “Self-immolation itself is a violent means of opposing demolition and removal.” These shocking statements seem at first glance to be incidental, but in fact they expose the blind faith these officials have in power, and the contempt they have for rules. [WSJ Blog on MOFA press conference].
The future is bright, but our real situation is severe. If we wish to turn laws on paper into real rule of law in practice, if we want to make a smooth transition to a system of rule of law, the core task facing us right now is to ensure that officials constantly respect the boundaries of the law. It is as delegate Zhou Guangquan (周光权) said, the focus of popularizing the law (普法) must mean a transition from [the law] applying to the ordinary people to officials abiding by the law, and the law serving as an important determining factor in transfers and promotions [for Party and government officials]. Only in this way can the legal system become the order respected by the whole of society. Only in this way can the whole nation operate with order and according to rules. And only in this way can every person [in our society] be free of fear. Only in a country ruled by law, where the law is supreme, can we ensure that the tragedy that faced Chairman Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) is not replayed.