When a recent forum in Beijing brought together deans from law schools around the world, the most stirring moment came as Zhou Yongkang (周永康), the most senior Communist Party leader in charge of legal affairs in China, delivered an address stressing his support for a strong legal system. Zhou said China must “comply with the universal principles of law” and “adopt and learn from all great human precedents in the area of rule of law.”
The idea of building a “rule of law culture” is now all the rage in China’s media, and a look at recent major news stories tells us exactly why. Rule of law is no longer just about protecting the rights of the weak in China, but concerns the safety and security of government elites as well.
The first news story to make ripples lately is the bribery case against Long Xiaole (龙小乐), a senior Party official at Wuhan University in China’s inland Hubei province. Not long after the trial began, Long Xiaole told the court his confession had been extracted through torture, involving three consecutive days and nights of interrogation during which he was subjected to beatings and extreme cold. Long’s prosecutors acknowledged dismissively that “the interrogation had been rather long.” But they countered that “there are no laws or regulations [in China] about the length of interrogations, and so there no illegalities were involved.”
Legal scholars, including Ding Dafan (丁大帆), quickly pointed out that China signed and ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture more than twenty years ago. Article I of the convention states that “torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession . . . ” Insofar as the convention applies to criminal law in China, any infliction of physical or mental suffering by public officers is illegal and constitutes torture.
The second major news story was the trial of Yang Jiannong (杨建农), a top police official in Hunan province. Shortly before Yang’s arrest, his wife, Chen Ling (陈玲), had made an internet post exposing a hornet’s nest of “dark plots” within the Hunan Public Security Department. Right on the heels of these online revelations, the department announced on its official website that Yang Jiannong was under investigation by provincial discipline inspectors for alleged acts of bribery reaching into the millions.
Both husband and wife are now prisoners. We can only speculate as to what connection this has to Chen Ling’s online muckraking.
Lawyers on the Hunan case have pointed to all sorts of problems in how the cases against Yang Jiannong and his wife have been handled. To begin with, Yang’s telephone line was reportedly monitored secretly while he was serving in his post. According to China’s Criminal Procedural Law, the family of Yang Jiannong’s wife, who was subsequently arrested for “fraudulent registration of assets”, should have been notified within twenty-four hours — they were not. Nor was the paperwork for her arrest handled properly.
Chen Ling has still been unable to meet with her lawyers, Hunan authorities claiming the case deals with “national secrets.” This explanation is ludicrous considering that “fraudulent registration of assets” is a common criminal offense, having nothing at all to do with matters of national secrecy. Everything gives the appearance local authorities are acting as they please, in utter contempt for the law and procedure.
Long Xiaole and Yang Jiannong are elites within China’s political system. They are, to use a popular phrase, “men of men.” But regardless of their privilege and status, their fates are fragile and every step is fraught with danger. Knocked down a notch, they find no more protection for their most basic rights than the most ordinary of Chinese. The system deals with them as it deals with all those who fall through the cracks and find themselves in positions of weakness.
In China, where modern rule of law effectively does not exist, and where experts say more than 70 percent of total social wealth is now concentrated in state hands, the national grab for wealth by those within the system operates by the law of the jungle. There are no rules or boundaries. This means the prospects for those inside the system, like Long Xiaole and Yang Jiannong, are as unpredictable as for anyone else. No one enjoys security, and the nightmare facing Long and Yang is shared by all those in positions of power and privilege. The system offers no guarantees, and might at any moment pull them down into the maelstrom.
We often assume the purpose of rule of law is to protect the weak. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Rule of law is about protecting the rights of everyone, regardless of how much wealth or power they have, and it should mean anyone can plan for the future with a sense of security.
If China’s ruling elite want this kind of security, the only way forward is developing a culture of rule of law in China. This is why Zhou Yongkang’s words were so timely and understandable. It is not enough for the weak to clamor for rule of law. The resources of our society are not in their hands, after all.
Only when both weak and strong reach a broad consensus on the urgency of this issue can we turn the resources of our country toward the development of rule of law. And only then will change truly come. Clearly, the time is already here.
A version of this article originally appeared in Chinese at Time Weekly. [View Time Weekly on the China Media Map].