In China, Corruption and Unrest Threaten Autocratic Rule

An article in the Atlantic looks at the nexus between legal reform, social unrest, and corruption in China:

Many China experts have noted that the protests arise because China does not afford citizens either open political institutions for changing power or transparent legal institutions for holding officials and businesses to account. Chinese seeking open resolution of disputes are often thwarted and driven to the streets. Moreover, superiors in the party or the government judge local officials by their ability to minimize civil protests, rather than by their capacity to develop legitimate political or legal outlets to address grievances. And, with political or legal institutions ineffective, the suppression of protest by corrupt officials only generates more discontent and more demonstrations.

To be sure, China is in the midst of enacting, if not enforcing, a vast array of new laws — and of increasing the numbers of lawyers and judges with meaningful legal training. (See, for example, the website of Yale Law School’s, China Law Center, or Harvard Law’s China Studies site.) China is making slow if discernible progress towards a legal system and major legal institutions that have enhanced independence and make some decisions based on law, not politics, maintains Yale’s Jamie Horsley.

Yet the vast legal system (more than 3,000 courts and nearly 200,000 judges) is still plagued by lack of training, competency, and professionalism. Moreover, Horsley herself concludes: “despite the growth of an increasingly robust legal system and broader legal consciousness in the general population, the Communist Party retains ultimate control, especially over the handling of sensitive political, economic, and social issues.” Corruption by party, state and state-enterprise officials is one of those “sensitive” areas. Lack of local enforcement remains a major problem. Party discipline, if and when it occurs, is often secret and undermines the legal system because it takes place outside of it.

Although authorities may use the carrot and give in to demands of some protesters, suppression by force, by abuse of “law,” by harassment and intimidation and by networks of informers is the current preferred means of addressing civil protests. It is the case especially after the tumult of the Arab Spring caused fears of destabilizing demonstrations in China. (And China is even more forceful in stamping out any protest movement which could go national.) This repression only exacerbates the recurring problem: an absence of open and accountable political and legal institutions which would allow protests to be channeled away from the street. Importantly, by stunting open politics and law, this approach to civil unrest fosters continued corruption in a society awash in money from investment and growth. But this corruption — both in the sense of officials/cadres taking money illicitly or in the arbitrary use of “law” for personal ends — only increases, in turn, the pressure for protests. And the great fear of the national government, of course, is that these protests will, at some point, turn into a national movement.

June 29, 2011 2:51 PM
Posted By: