Rule of Law, the Killer App that Keeps Crashing in China

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I read Fareed Zakaria’s cover story this week about the decline of the U.S. first from the perspective of an American, but I couldn’t help thinking about what it had to say about China. China is of course seen as the leading rival to American dominance. He quotes Harvard historian Niall Ferguson on the background of how this came to be:

For 500 years the West patented six killer applications that set it apart. The first to download them was Japan. Over the last century, one Asian country after another has downloaded these killer apps — competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Those six things are the secret sauce of Western civilization.

Certainly China has managed to download most of those “killer apps” over the past three decades of reform. But one application especially, the rule of law, crashes with surprising frequency here. It seems to happen most often when the ruling Communist Party considers itself under threat. Despite China’s rising global clout and the phenomenal economic growth the country has enjoyed over the past two decades, the Party still acts as if threatened with surprising frequency. The latest round has been touched off by the call for an Arab Spring-style “jasmine revolt” in China. Since the online call for protests around China was made last month there have been no real demonstrations to speak of, but a massive response by police and security services.

As the protests calls continue, the government has ramped up its response. One week ago undercover police assaulted one journalist in Beijing, and the authorities detained many more. They’ve since launched a campaign of intimidation, which the New York Times details here, calling in many foreign journalists over the past week, visiting several at home over the weekend, following others and detaining several in Shanghai who were trying to see if any protesters would come out on Sunday. The government has essentially torn up the rules for foreign reporters, which were introduced with great fanfare in 2008 as the most liberal ever. Though the rules have officially not changed, as our office has been reminded twice now by the police, foreign journalists in Beijing have been given any number of explanations that they had to comply with new restrictions, namely that they could not go to Wangfujing or Xidan, popular shopping districts in the city center that were named in the protest call. Most significantly, the Associated Press reported Sunday that foreign reporters must first receive official permission before reporting in the city center, according to a vice director of Beijing’s Foreign Affairs office. If the government enforces this new declaration, central Beijing will join the remote region of Tibet as off-limits to reporters without special permission.

This treatment of foreign reporters is symbolic of the more important ways that laws and regulations are arbitrarily interpreted when the Party feels threatened. During the last such period, after imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, dozens of dissidents were confined to house arrest or other forms of detention. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, remains under house arrest. Others have endured even longer bouts of arbitrary detention. Lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been subjected to repeated bouts of disappearance and torture, has been missing since April, and is presumably once again the the hands of state security officers. Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife have been under strict house arrest in their village in Shandong after he was released from prison in September. After a group of Chinese lawyers met to discuss his case in mid-February, two, Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong, were detained by police. And since the protest calls emerged at least 100 activists have been questioned, followed, put under house arrest or otherwise monitored by police, according to human rights groups.

One traditional argument about such abuses is that they happen at the fringes, and are thus unimportant. Those that ignore politics and focus on more acceptable pursuits like making money can avoid trouble. But that isn’t always the case. Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University, wrote last week about the case of Xue Feng, a geologist and naturalized American citizen sentenced to eight years in prison for violating China’s state secrets law after purchasing a database on oil resources. Xue’s argument that the database was only designated secret after he acquired it wasn’t addressed by the Beijing High Court. The case “is a vivid reminder that China’s abuses of criminal justice can reach even those who steer clear of politics and human rights,” Cohen wrote.

For the immediate future, there is little sign that this aggressive approach will abate. China’s internal security spending will exceed its national defense budget, Reuters reported Sunday, and the influence of security chief Zhou Yongkang is on the rise, according to the Financial Times. Such a heavy-handed approach ignores critical questions about whether crackdowns actually solve problems, or push them underground to fester. In recent days “stability maintenance”  has been a focus of the state press. The Beijing Daily, the capital’s Communist Party mouthpiece, carried front-page editorials on Saturday and Sunday warning about the dangers of the political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East spilling into China. To safeguard social harmony and stability, citizens “be vigilant for people with ulterior motives, always be clear-headed, keep your eyes open, recognize internal conspiracies and never allow them a chance to succeed,” the paper said on March 6. That killer app known as the rule of law didn’t merit a mention.