The 18th century English essayist Oliver Goldsmith once wrote: Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law. Put a slight twist on that sentence from The Vicar of Wakefield, and you get a glimpse into the uglier side of Chinese society where Laws grind the poor, and the powerful rule the law.
China is in fact a society centered around officials. Wealth is based on having power, whereas simply being rich doesnt necessarily bring power.
Two recent incidents clearly highlight two different ways in which laws have been implemented. One is a case of several officials who had lied on their resumes about their age and academic degrees. Far from being punished, one of them was even promoted. The other case is about an ordinary woman who bought a fake authenticating seal because she needed it to stamp a paper enabling her to register her child for school. Schooling is after all a basic right of the people and such seals are hawked on every street corner. Now she faces criminal prosecution.
The fraud perpetrated by the public servants undermines the government's credibility and legitimacy. They should therefore be severely punished. Meanwhile, a rural emigrant who faked a processing seal has disrupted the normal working order of an administrative department. But this administrative procedure is itself a burden on ordinary civil rights, and its legitimacy can be questioned. In short, the case should have been dealt with leniency.
As these examples show, the selective enforcement of law is clearly before us. The proclamation in the Chinese Constitution that All men are equal before the law is obviously challenged.
The government's household registration system discriminates against the school enrollment of migrant worker children. In the face of this institutional wrong, there is no recourse to non-legal means of circumventing the restriction.
Nevertheless, according to the Criminal Law and the Public Security Administration Punishment Law, Forging, altering or selling and buying official state seals is defined both as a crime and as a threat to public order. Yet it is obvious that her offense is minor and does not cause serious harm, and this behavior does not constitute a crime. At most it is to be defined as a violation of the rules, and be penalized as such.
Put aside the specific details, the two cases reveal wider issues.
Chinese traditional political philosophy emphasizes ethics flowing from the top, down. Officials must lead by example and establish a model as upright citizens themselves. The reason why China is poorly ruled is in large part attributed to the fact that Chinese officials do not respect the law, and they are indulgent with themselves while being strict with others.
The fake seal case happened because of the existence of some importunate red tape. Theres no victim. Instead, the constitutionality and legitimacy of such regulatory means should be the subject at hand. The citizens right to education is a basic constitutional right. The local Peoples Congress or local authority have no right to enact local regulations or policies that detract from peoples basic rights enshrined in the constitution.
In administration and law enforcement, the public ought to be admitted to a larger and deeper scope of participation during the decision-making procedure. It has long been an issue that the majority of migrant workers, whose children are affected by the schooling regulations, have been excluded from any chance of participating in debating such an important policy.
The public is all too familiar with having to go back and forth to administration offices for a missing seal or letter. Chinese bureaucracy costs people too much time and energy: the Convenient administration slogan should be more than just a slogan.
Fake seals and fake papers have long existed semi-publicly in China. The public security should focus more on cleaning up this sellers market so the public doesnt act with the misconception that its somehow normal to use fraud, and that the authorities will look the other way.
The integrity of civil servants must improve. Once found guilty of fraud, an official should never be employed as such again. Integrity is the basis of public authority as well as the foundation of the governments legitimacy. If an official is allowed to cheat and remain in the government, not only might he use his power to commit even more evil, but the phenomena itself can undermine the people's trust. Keeping a dishonest official is like not removing a tumor- the malignancy is bound to spread.
Privileges run rampant in China today, while law enforcement varies from person to person. Chinese people want change; and if the government does not respond and guide the change, it could end up facing a critical situation.
*Zheng Ge is Assistant Professor of Law at Hong Kong University
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