According to recent news reports, announcers at television and radio stations are now prohibited from using English-language acronyms. This applies even to those that are rather familiar to us, like “NBA” and “WTO.” It is international custom to use acronyms for those international organizations and things that are generally familiar to the public. So as soon as this ban came out, the whole country was in an uproar. They even started speculating whether from now on the abbreviation “WC” [for toilet] would be similarly banned.
If a ban on this popular designation for the public toilet indeed comes, we will hardly have cause for surprise. We live in a land, after all, where we grow used to bans from our teachers and schools when we are young, and where we are surrounded on all sides by bans once we’ve grown up and entered society.
Government departments that have the power to do so issue bans, and other units [companies, etc.] that have no right to do so also issue bans. Bans are issued in every place where anyone with power or authority has the ability to control people.
There are bans that control officials. There are bans that control the public. Who knows how many bans there are — from the central party down to the local areas — against eating and drinking at the public expense? And still to this day, tens of thousands and even millions in hospitality fees (招待费) are spent each year even at the lowest levels of power in China.
Perhaps the most startling ban we have had was one from Hunan — a strict prohibition against teachers raping female students. And there was another from Guizhou — a strict prohibition against stealing police cars.
Clearly, if even the rape of female students and the theft of police vehicles necessitate government bans, these bans themselves must be of doubtful effectiveness. Some people say that bans directed at officials are essentially useless. Bans directed at the public, meanwhile, are quite effective.
It’s always the useless bans that they are fondest of issuing. With just a bit of power, one can set one’s seal to paper and release a document [announcing a ban]. Local areas have always issued a steady stream of documents setting down bans. And if these bans were all set end to end, I have no idea how many times they would encircle the globe.
Nor is there any concern about whether one’s own bans are appropriate or even legal — in fact, there have always been many bans that violate the constitution and even the law. Or in other cases government bodies come out with bans on activities that are already clearly unlawful or even criminal — like this joke of a ban against the rape of female students by teachers.
And then there are bans that aren’t even put down on paper, but are delivered by phone or through a simple spoken instruction.
It’s as though some [government] organs believe that only by issuing there own bans on their own turf can they flex their own muscles. Bans have become a way of expressing one’s own administrative identity and style.
I don’t know how many years we’ve been shouting this slogan about rule of law. But our organs of power at various levels [in the bureaucracy], and even our enterprise units and public organizations, still have no understanding of the law beyond the written page.
In terms of concrete governance [in accord with rule of law], things are still like the old days of the land lords — they have their own say on their own turf, and what they say goes. And one measure of how well they are keeping control is made by the bans they issue. The higher the organ [in the bureaucracy], the more bans they see fit to issue.
As for the law, it never enters their minds. When superior offices send down great big bans, subordinate offices follow up with their little tiny ones. When the former clash with the latter, no one seems to care . . . Even when bans are useless they still come out. For many [government] organs, issuing bans is a way of showing the attention they give to this or that issue.
When bans come out or are sent down, they feel they completed a task. If the ban has no teeth, well that’s not our responsibility.
This inundation of bans is in fact rule of man [or ‘autocracy’, versus rule of law] . . . These bans that vary according to human caprice can be seen everywhere. For example, in this ban against the use of English-language acroynms.
We’ve been shouting “NBA” for I don’t know how many years, and Yao Ming is so hot his temperature can’t rise. Suddenly, we’re not allowed to say it. Our leaders rack their brains and another ban comes into the world. After a while there will be a change in leadership, and this ban will become a ghost of the past. Then along will come the next new face with his own bans.
This article originally appeared in Chinese in the April 9, 2010, edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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