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Are the Two Meetings pointless? – Writing laws that won’t be enforced

Just in case you’ve been doing something else this week besides poring over China news, Monday marked the start of China’s annual Two Meetings (两会lianghui). Over 10 days, “representatives” (it is unclear who they actually represent) submit thousands of suggestions for new laws, listen to speeches from heads of various ministries, and approve virtually everything the Party sets in front of them.

For many Chinese netizens, it serves as a buffet of memes (internet jokes) at the expense of sleeping delegates and Mao’s grandson, as well as a source of outrage when it comes to expensive clothing and accessories.

At the end of the meetings, new laws will be presented and then promptly forgotten. As the WSJ put it:

…activists including artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained for 81 days last year without being charged, say Chinese police rarely observe legal procedure, and the new revisions include many loopholes that would still allow police to make people “disappear” in politically sensitive cases.

So if the laws aren’t actually enforced, aren’t these meetings pointless?

The reason China journalists, human rights advocates, financial analysts, and others have been glued to their screens this week isn’t because they think these new laws will actually be strictly enforced. Instead, this week is dedicated to reading tea leaves and trying to discern China’s future direction. This is especially important given that there will be a new group of leaders appointed this fall.

For example, Bo Xilai (the guy who loves red songs) and Wang Yang (called a reformer) have been the focus of at least a dozen articles, even though the next leader has already been decided (unofficially). Instead, these two men represent two factions within the Party, and the ascension of either one to a higher post could mean a general shift in that direction.

Unfortunately, Bo Xilai has been entangled in a political scandal, and is now unlikely to be promoted. I say “unfortunately” not because Bo deserves a promotion (my nationalist friend in Chengdu called him a “psycho” and the more reform minded friend called him “dangerous”), but his scandal means that we can no longer tell if he just lost favor or if his whole ideology has lost standing.

On the other hand, laws, like the one protecting human rights during detention, are China’s way of signaling to the rest of the world how it would like to be portrayed or less cynically, what it hopes to be. Law makers know this bill will result in headlines like, “China acts to give defendants greater rights,” and “China targets detention practices,” without actually limiting what state security agents can do, but many papers and activists will call it progress.

While I might seem skeptical, bare in mind the many cases of detention Yaxue has detailed on this blog were already in defiance of the current laws (“China is a country under rule of law” ironically was last year’s theme). Until people like Chen Guangcheng are free, there is little reason to expect that this law will be any better enforced.

Speeches, like Wen Jiabao’s promise that “Farmers’ land rights not to be violated by anyone,” serve two purposes. One, to give the appearance that the Party cares about Chinese farmers (which they need in order to maintain stability), and two, serves as a clear message to local gov’t’s that this issue is a priority. However, there is still little reason to think that this marks the end of land grabs. Police last year were ordered not to meddle in home demolitions, yet this is still a common source of tension.

Next week we’ll look closer at the tea leaves, and try to discern what kind of country China would like to be seen as.


10 Comments

  1. […] You’ve heard it said that the most effective way to kill productivity is to have a meeting, right? Well, China’s currently having two of them. “For many Chinese netizens, it serves as a buffet of memes (internet jokes) at the expense of sleeping delegates and Mao’s grandson, as well as a source of outrage when it comes to expensive clothing and accessories. // At the end of the meetings, new laws will be presented and then promptly forgotten.” [Seeing Red in China] […]

  2. Lao Why? says:

    I am sure I will get the typical reaction for this but what the heck…that’s what blogs are for. I work with a major SOE. In this company there is an understanding between the policy writers and the line of business people that goes something like this: The policy writers must write policies to justify their jobs. They also realize that every policy they write constrains the line from doing business. Therefore, they write the policies so ambiguously that you could drive a truck through the loopholes. That way, the policy wonks can show their bosses, the regulators and anyone else that they have done their job by addressing procedural and operational risks. Meanwhile the guys on the line have leeway to skirt around the policies in order to continue to do business. Different offices have different interpretations of the same vague policy in order to suit their local situations. It is truly form over substance.
    I think the comparison to China laws is warranted. The legislators compose laws in a way that gives the local administrators plenty of room to continue their ordinary activities while they can at the same time address critics and the world, saying we have world class laws and regulations. And then when critics point out the continuance of the local behavior, the central lawmakers say, “I am shocked that this behavior continues. We’ll investigate and then get back to you.”

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      How can you work with this people and still look yourself in the mirror, Lao Why?!!!! Is that the usual response? 😉 I didn’t want to disappoint you.

      Your contribution here is, I think, crucial to answering the more important question: what is the point of the two meetings? I think Tom has partially answered this question by discussing legitimacy and face. But what you’ve described goes to this point of the purpose of writing law that isn’t strictly followed or enforced. Not being a legal scholar, I don’t have the language to describe this, so I’ll put it in terms a sociologist would recognize. Basically, these laws/regulations/procedures at minimum act to circumscribe (not sure if that’s the best word) the boundaries of possible and probably action. People will orient themselves in relation to these laws and will be relatively compliant or uncompliant. The case of the public schools is a case in point. There has been a long-term, grand struggle between various levels of the education bureaucracy over any number of matters, e.g., non-tuition school fees, teacher’s salaries, weekend classes, paid admissions, etc. The list goes on. It’s a real cat and mouse game. Headmasters are endlessly creative (as are parents) at finding ways to earn money for the school and, for some, themselves. But we would be wrong to say the regulations are pointless. They do provoke change, although not always in the positive direction of providing equal access and outcomes. Having said this, we ought not to be so naive as to think there is a perfectly equal or egalitarian school system out there. One of the worst aspects of rule of law is that when it is achieved, we enter into a phase in which adherence to the rules masks the continued operation of what was once known by all to be unfair or illegitimate. It’s a real conundrum. Under conditions of manifest corruption, it’s quite easy for all to see what’s wrong, which is why I often tell people in Canada that Chinese are far less naive than the average Canadian.

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    A nice and insightful guide to Lianghui, Tom.

    @Lao Why?, it’s all a show, and people don’t believe what they are doing, but they want the rest of the world to believe it. They are offended if you don’t believe them.

    • Lao Why? says:

      I remember a policy written by one my colleagues that seemed particularly onerous. I asked him “Are we really going to follow this procedure?” He said “of course not” I asked “why did you write it then?” He said because he thought “the regulators would be impressed with such a procedure (that on the surface) was so restrictive.” I asked “when the regulators come in to examine our operations, won’t they be critical of us for not following procedure?” He then pointed out the loopholes and said, “they won’t bother to check. All they want to know is that we have procedures.”
      It is indeed a show.

  4. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  5. […] week we looked at why the Two Meetings matter, today we’re looking at what this year’s recurring themes […]

  6. […] by local police. She was later prevented from leaving her own home because the Communist Party’s Two Meetings were being held in Beijing. […]

  7. […] under constant police surveillance. When the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the Two Meetings approaches, the police often briefly detain him to prevent him from commemorating those who died in […]

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