Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, May 21, 2012

Heaven is high; the emperor is far away

Should this example put to rest the notion that the Chinese system is totalitarian? Is the old proverb more accurate?

China’s Obsession With Stability Can Come at the Cost of Laws

China’s central government says that the activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng is a free man, and has promised him an investigation of the harrowing abuses he suffered at the hands of guards here. Mr. Chen’s desperate escape last month from persecution to American protection has embarrassed China’s leaders and cast new shadows on their commitment to the rule of law.

But a visit to this municipality in eastern China, where Mr. Chen and his family most recently spent 20 months as prisoners in their own home, offers no hint of a change in the way China deals with its dissidents.

Journalists who sought on Sunday to talk to residents a few hundred yards from Dongshigu, the village in Linyi where Mr. Chen was held captive, were quickly escorted out by thugs in four automobiles, and later were accosted in a burst of arm-wrenching and name-calling.

Members of the same gang still keep Mr. Chen’s mother incommunicado and under siege here. Mr. Chen’s nephew faces a charge of attempted murder after he slashed a knife at plainclothes officers who invaded his home and beat him. Lawyers seeking to defend the nephew have been ordered to drop the case or face retribution.

There is no evidence that the central government in Beijing ordered this harassment, all of which is illegal under Chinese law. But neither is there any indication that Beijing wants it to stop.

To the contrary, both rights activists and legal experts say, the system for dealing with dissidents and other troublemakers is geared toward allowing local leaders to ignore the law, with Beijing’s sometimes silent assent. Indeed, the central government may even reward local leaders for doing so. The reason is that their Communist Party careers depend on meeting a series of performance goals — from high economic growth to low levels of public unrest — whose importance far outweigh any gold stars awarded for following the law.

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