Social Change and its Impact on the Role of Law
Incoming president Xi Jinping has pledged to uphold the constitution and rule of law in China. But, as Stanley Lubman points out in a post on the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time, this is a complicated prospect given China’s current social and political situation. He describes new regulations implemented in Chinese cities that govern the behavior of pet owners and mandate that grown children visit their parents “often”:
These and other recent legal developments – including a pair of domestic violence cases with wildly different outcomes – illustrate how unprecedented social changes in China are provoking new questions about the role of law in society, and creating problems for law-makers, citizens and courts alike.
[...] Litigation sometimes reflects pressures to meet social change, as shown by two recent cases involving violence against women that challenges a long-standing acceptance of domestic abuse. In one case, Kim Lee, the American wife of a well-known Chinese English teacher, was granted a divorce by a Chinese court on the grounds of domestic violence. The court also issued a three-month restraining order against the husband that was described in Chinese media as “unprecedented.” Ms. Lee brought the case to court despite police attempts to discourage her. As one commentary published on the website of The Atlantic noted, “[F]or many in China, especially in rural areas, physical violence in the home is an accepted part of a marital relationship.” Ms. Lee posted photos of her injuries on the Internet and succeeded in her divorce suit. The case provoked a nation-wide debate about domestic violence. By the time it was decided, it had generated more than three million comments on Sina Weibo.
Another example of social problems intersecting with law is the even more serious case of Li Yan, a woman in southwestern China’s Sichuan province who killed her husband after suffering years of abuse and violence. Despite a large amount of evidence documenting her ordeals, the court ruled that she had not adequately proven domestic violence and sentenced her to death. The case has gone to the Supreme People’s Court, which has not yet ruled on whether her execution should be carried out.
All of the cases discussed here are examples of shifts in social values that demonstrate the complex interactions between law and social change. The Shenzhen law suggests limits on the influence of legal rules on citizens’ behavior. The new legal provisions imposing a duty, however vague, on adult children to care for their elderly parents illustrate a legislative intent to influence intergenerational attitudes whose traditional content have been eroded by economic change. And the issue of domestic violence reflects social pressures for new laws to protect wives from violent husbands, while also raising doubt about the extent to which such laws would actually protect them.
Lubman concludes that these new efforts to legislate behavior demonstrate that “Chinese society is racing headlong into a new era and grasping for new rules as it goes.”