Note to Media: High-profile Criminal Cases Are Not Representative of China’s Judicial System

November 6, 2012

I don’t know about you, but it annoys the hell out of me when the foreign press grabs onto the latest high-profile criminal trial, invariably one that involves a hot-button political issue and, preferably, a media-savvy dissident with Western contacts, and suggest that this court case, or the underlying policy debate, is somehow an indictment of China’s entire judicial system.

For example, NPR in the U.S. ran an article a few days ago entitled “Can China’s Legal System Change?” Excellent, thought I, here’s something I can sink my brain into for a few minutes. Perhaps this was a discussion of the recent amendments to the Civil Procedure Law, an analysis of the reforms to China’s death penalty regime, or a report on the latest judicial reform white paper?

I was disappointed to find that the article was not at all about China’s legal system, but really just an extended interview with a certain famous blind dissident who is now in residence at New York University. The interview did cover legal reform, but the discussion was limited to the One Child Policy, thug cops, and the treatment of this dissident’s family. Rule of law and the lack of an independent judiciary in China was mentioned several times but never developed beyond the level of a sound bite. And let’s face it, this guy is not exactly a neutral source of information on the Chinese legal system.

I’m not trying to belittle dissidents, or the media who report on their activities. However, as exciting as these criminal trials, detentions and protests are, this is a big country and there is a lot more going on here. For example, China now boasts the second-largest economy in the world and has a very busy court system that (Breaking News!) contains a civil division. If any of you in the media are unfamiliar with this term, it refers to those cases, such as commercial disputes, that are not criminal trials. Yes, judges often do other things in China besides hear politically-charged criminal cases.

The number of these commercial cases taken to court in China has been rising rapidly for many years. If there was really no rule of law in China, why do you think that all these Chinese folks would be flocking to court to settle their business disputes? Hmm, that’s a tough question.

Let me suggest something that may be a bit surprising to some of you out there. Suppose, just suppose, that these famous cases represent a very small minority of judicial action in China. And now further assume that for decades, China’s courts have been reformed and that judges have gotten better through training and experience. Imagine, if you will, that for the majority of civil cases, if not criminal actions, rule of law is functioning very well, thank you.

Now, before anyone has time for a rebuttal, let me stipulate to a few things. China’s courts are not immune to problems like corruption, local protectionism, political interference and inexperienced judges. My above point is not that these things have been wiped out in China, but rather that they have been minimized to the point where we can say, with a straight face mind you, that they are no longer the rule in most places (and particularly in the large cities on the East Coast).

I’ll further stipulate that China does not, in fact, have a completely independent judiciary and that political interference is common in certain types of cases. Again, my point is that these cases do not represent the vast majority of civil or criminal actions in China, and therefore using them to make a general assertion about rule of law in China is inaccurate and misleading.

C’mon media, give us some nuance once in a while, and lay off the generalizations.