Implementation of Chinese Laws: Logic or Magic Trick?

Implementation of Chinese Laws: Logic or Magic Trick?
Apr 30, 2012 By

China seems to have laws against just about everything.  There's a very good chance you have yourself broken one or another of them recently, perhaps without even knowing it; stay here for any length of time and you're bound to.  What purpose does all this legislation serve?

A Chinese friend once remarked that Chinese people have to decide for themselves which laws they will follow, which they will break.  Some try to follow them all and make their own lives impossible, while others seem to ignore legislation completely. This can be very confusing for the foreign visitor.  Many of us see the law as a reflection of morality.  The chances are if we break laws back home then we're also guilty of some social transgression and so we frown upon law breaking and try to stay within legal boundaries. 

In contrast, China is a nation of laws, not the rule of law, and there seem to be laws for just about everything.  Try to follow them all and you probably can't function.  Consequently people pick and choose, often quite blatantly.  It's hard to remember, for example, that Chinese traffic laws are similar to those in other countries when it seems the traffic police are there to do little more than to clear up the mess resulting from accidents in all the chaos of seemingly rule-free driving.  Prostitution is illegal, but on a main road not far from me are a few of those distinctive ‘hairdressing salons' with strange red lighting, the nearest not a hundred metres from a police station.

How many laws have you broken?                                    

Some laws seem all but impossible to follow.  It's necessary, for example, to register your address with the local PSB should you spend 24 hours or more in any location, even spending a night with friends.  If you book into a hotel no problem, the hotel does it for you, but if not you have to find the right PSB office in a strange city, usually carefully concealed up some back-alley miles away.  It's difficult to believe an occasional foreigner here or there hasn't broken that law.  Does every foreigner carry their passport with them everywhere and at all times?  Has no foreigner ever been guilty of using a proxy server to access YouTube or to get their email when Google services in China seem to be having a particularly bad day?

When I first arrived in China one law that was fairly rigidly enforced was that foreigners should stay only in hotels licensed to take them.  This law was increasingly flouted over the following years.  In the end I forgot the law altogether until a trip to Chengdu had me turned away from hotel after hotel.  I was footsore and weary before, late at night, I found a hotel licensed to permit my stay.  The law hadn't gone away, it had simply fallen into disuse. And, for some reason, at that particular time in Chengdu, the local police decided it needed to be revived and enforced.  Though I know the law was formally rescinded for Beijing at the time of the Olympics, I've no idea whether it's still on the statute books waiting to pounce.  Chinese laws seem not to die, but rather to fall asleep on-call, there to be awakened if necessary.

Foreign teachers in colleges and universities over the past five years have found it increasingly difficult to get work, not because of new laws but because old ones are being revived.  Most recently, some teachers are losing their posts having worked here for five years or more.  Some who've been working here for over a decade ignorant of the existence of this five-year law now find themselves being asked to leave with its sudden and unexpected enforcement.

The nefarious results

It all seems so counter-productive.  Institutions flout laws in search of much-needed but rare foreign teaching staff.  Too many laws lead to official corruption as administrators look through statutes to see what bizarre dictum people may have flouted so they can charge the victim a ‘fine'.  Worse, it's impossible to have a law-respecting citizenry when people have no choice but to choose which laws they follow, which they ignore in order to function. To make things even more complicated, local officials pick and choose which national laws they enforce.  Talk with two officials in different cities about which visa regulations they enforce and you'll always find subtle, occasionally major, differences.  Indeed, the visa laws are so Machiavellian in their complexity you may even find two officials in the same office in disagreement. But perhaps in all this madness there is method.

I was in East Germany shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall.  A local friend observed a passing law-enforcer with the wry commentary, "Our poor policemen.  They are so unhappy these days.  In the past they could pick anyone up off the street, they were certain to be breaking some law or other.  Now they're not sure if anything is illegal at all." In a nation of laws you can be fairly certain everyone is doing something ‘wrong'.  Officials can pull in anyone, confident they can find a reason for doing so.  Moreover, it's useful for a government to have a host of laws upon which to call.  Too many foreigners?  No problem.  Circulate a reminder of the five-year rule and insist upon its enforcement, no new legislation necessary, no announcements made, no discussion allowed.  That's the law, it has been for years and you're gone. Chinese law may look like a nightmare, but perhaps that nightmare is every politician's dream.  

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Keywords: Chinese laws and rules visa regulations China rules for foreigners in China implementation of Chinese legislation breaking Chinese laws


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May 06, 2012 05:15 Report Abuse



This. This article. Very well done.

May 02, 2012 07:08 Report Abuse



Even if there are too many laws (a statement I won't take sides on), this isn't the reason why laws aren't enforced.

More laws make it easier to enforce the law, never harder. The problem is the police and other authorities will only make trouble for themselves if they enforce the law. They will quickly make enemies with powerful groups and there is nobody with political power there to defend them.

We should ask why it is that in Europe and the West there was a period, which may now be coming to a close, in which there was such a thing as the "rule of law" and the "spirit of the law". I think it has to do with the guild system, mercantilism and the role of the bourgeoisie in overthrowing monarchy. In China, as in much of the rest of the residual "developing" world, this system did not mature and so there was never a true "rule of law".

May 01, 2012 07:23 Report Abuse