Many Laws, Little Justice in China

Since 1978, China has recreated its legal system from scratch, with the authorities hailing recently enacted protections for private property as a major step forward in enshrining the rule of law. Behind the rhetoric, however, ordinary Chinese remain at the mercy of arbitrary local governments, while lawyers who attempt to help them gain access to justice face professional retaliation and sometimes physical assault.

The image on the computer screen is shocking: a man, lying on a hospital bed, his head bandaged, with long trickles of blood running from the top of his scalp. The man, now sitting next to me, explains with a bit of understatement, “Of course I must continue to have faith in the Chinese legal system, although I must admit that this incident has somewhat dampened my optimism.”

The “incident” occurred last December, as he and another attorney traveled to prepare the re-trial of a blind, self-taught legal activist. That activist had been framed by local authorities after he had denounced abuses by the local family planning authorities. As the two lawyers were traveling on a bus, a gang of men, some of them wielding metal pipes, boarded it and brutally assaulted them.

The injuries proved minor, but the incident embodies the paradox of China’s legal system: over the past two decades, China has enacted hundreds of laws and elevated “ruling the country according to law” to ideological and constitutional prominence. Legal awareness in society has soared to unprecedented levels. Last week, China finally enshrined private property by passing the long-awaited property rights law, in what the government called “significant progress in promoting rule of law in the country.”

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