US-China-Taiwan Relations
The Rule of Law

All political systems evolve. In the case of the PRC, one of the most frequently heard suggestions is that China become a country ruled by law. But what does "rule of law" actually mean?

There are two distinct definitions of the rule of law in the Western tradition: (1) strict obedience and enforcement of law as it rests on the books, and (2) government and society following laws aligned to principles of justice in an ideal sense. In the case of China, neither definition seems applicable, in that many laws are not strictly enforced and many laws that are enforced seem not to be just. The Chinese legal system appears to be controlled through arbitrary decisions of high-ranking members of the Chinese Community Party and local authorities with little accountability to the people they govern.   

The Party claims it has a right to rule by virtue of its success in the Chinese revolution, and Chinese dynastic history would justify the Party and its leaders assuming total authority over the people, resources, and territory of China. If the CCP were suddenly to relinquish this control, the country would almost certainly descend into political, social, and economic chaos. 

The question is whether the Chinese political system on the mainland can evolve into a rule of law that both sustains stability and enables the people to be better served by government. For this to occur, PRC leaders must carefully manage a transition from the rule of man to the rule of law. Certain excesses stemming from authoritarian rule need to be eliminated: high-level corruption, arbitrary arrest and punishment, illegal seizure of property -- all harm the image of the Party and weaken the ability of its leaders to unify the country around national goals that benefit everyone.

The rule of law itself must be strengthened, so that good laws are not merely characters printed on a page but rather equitably enforced guidelines to instruct the people on what is expected of them and to earn their confidence because the rules they follow are applicable to all. Bad laws -- those that are deliberately designed and used to manipulate, deceive, or otherwise harm certain citizens -- must be repealed. The law should be respected by everyone in society because it is fair and just and good.

Such a transition in China from political domination by the CCP to one in which the Party and other political entities strive and compete to better serve the interests of the people, cannot occur overnight. Nor would such a transition be smooth. 

The problem faced by the CCP is that its leaders and members are not all enlightened human beings. If the Party were comprised of ideal people, then an authoritarian system might work, because the Party would truly have the interests of the people at heart. But people are not perfect, and most are tempted to use their power to exploit others. The more authoritarian the system, the more corruption can become endemic.

The rule of law, if properly designed and enforced, can erect legal sanctions against corruption and protect society from exploitation. To be effective, however, the rule of law must itself be held accountable to the people, else laws will be written to serve the interests of the few against the many. Checks and balances within the governing structure of society, including all branches of government, are essential as long as people are not perfect. 

But how does an authoritarian system allow itself to become accountable to the people? This is a major ideological and political challenge to the CCP, the response to which will determine the future of China. Perhaps the greatest hope for peaceful change is that Chinese leaders will see the needs of the whole of China in the context of the global community, and thereby understand how the country can best be governed. 

July 22, 2012