Bo Xilai, Chen Guangcheng, and the Law in China

The convergence of the two high-profile cases involving former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, who is being detained on suspicion of corruption, and Chen Guangcheng, a legal activist who escaped de facto house arrest, is bringing the issue of legal justice in China to the forefront. Two essays examine what these cases tell us about the status of the rule of law in China. In the New York Times, Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin argues that the law does matter in China as citizens become more active in speaking up for their legal rights:

Both cases are widely seen as emblematic. Bo’s embodies the corruption of an unchecked political elite: Communist Party members are investigated by the party’s own disciplinary committee, and not by the courts. Chen’s case is rife with the predatory behavior of local officials whose conduct is more reminiscent of China’s feudal past than of the “new socialist countryside” Beijing leaders claim to be building.

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the law doesn’t matter in China.

First, while Chen’s case entails the catalogue of unlawful measures that are used against government critics, it also embodies the rising assertiveness of a citizenry that is increasingly ready to defend its legal rights against official arbitrariness, corruption and injustice.

Land-rights activists, factory workers, forcibly evicted residents, arbitrarily censored netizens, ordinary consumers and environmental activists — citizens in China are increasingly committed to defending their rights.

Nevertheless, U.C. Berkeley Law Professor Stanley Lubman argues, China’s legal system is weak and the law still primarily, “serves as a tool to maintain the Party’s control of Chinese society.” He writes in the Wall Street Journal:

In considering the possibility that Chinese criminal law might be invoked to punish misconduct in either case, it would a mistake to think of China’s legal institutions as a “legal system.” Legal institutions in China, especially the criminal law, are part of a political system that ultimately directs their application and their use. They are essentially grounded on the dominant notion that law is to be used to keep the Party in power.

Laws are not implemented in a uniform manner in China. They are often vague, giving local officials the opportunity to ignore or vary their application and to exercise considerable discretion in many cases. Enforcement can be overly lax (as in cases of unlawful property takings by local governments or violations of food safety laws), excessively harsh, or downright ignored, as they were by officials in Shandong where Chen was harshly treated.

It is impossible to believe that Chen’s treatment was not well-known at high levels in Beijing. His case has provoked widespread coverage in the foreign press since 2005, and has been a topic of discussion among foreign NGOs and on the Chinese internet. The embarrassment that Chen has handed the leadership makes denial from Beijing of central government involvement in the ordeals of him and his family very difficult.

Nonetheless, admission of central government responsibility is unlikely. The most that can be expected is a conclusory statement about an investigation and its termination, probably with a token announcement about some punishment at the local level.

Read more about Bo Xilai, Chen Guangcheng, and rule of law in China via CDT.