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Law is not a shield

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法律不是挡箭牌。 (Fǎlǜ bú shì dǎngjiànpái.): The law is not a shield.

2011年早期的中国茉莉花革命中,外媒记者在尝试报道事件时被警方武力组织。在当日举行的外交部例行记者会上,当被对质到因为违反了什么法律法规而被阻止时,外交部新闻发言人姜瑜说到:“违反了去那个地方采访需申请的有关规定。不要拿法律当挡箭牌。” 姜瑜还宣称:“问题的实质是有人唯恐天下不乱,想在中国闹事。对於抱有这种动机的人,我想什么法律也保护不了他。如果你们是真正的记者,就应按照记者的职业准则行事,在中国要遵守中国的法律法规。从前两次情况看,那些去蹲守的记者也没有等到他们想等的新闻。如果这两天还有人煽动、鼓动你们再去什么地方非法聚集,建议你们及时报警,一是为了维护北京的治安,二是为了维护你们自身的安全和权益。

Jiang’s comments were extremely controversial, leaving many netizens asking, “If ‘the law is not a shield,’ what’s the point of the law?” (“法律不是挡箭牌”还要法律干什么) Perhaps the most notable response to Jiang Yu’s comments was Chen Youxi’s editorial in Southern Weekly (translated by China Media Project):

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.

Jiang Yu’s 2011 quip is applied beyond its original context to other murky decisions from above. (Hexie Farm)

“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.

This turn of phrase has also been related to more recent events, such as the expulsion from China of Al-Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan in 2012.