I have the tendency to talk about this grand concept called Rule of Law in terms of foreign direct investment, IP enforcement, anti-trust cases, M&A — basically areas in which I have direct experience.
This is not useless information of course. Rule of law issues as they relate to foreign companies and foreign investment are critical to developing countries that rely on influxes of capital and know-how.
At the same time, however, I think that this focus overlooks something much more important to the future of the country — how Chinese nationals view their legal system. Furthermore, much as we (law and business bloggers) like to emphasize cases that involve foreigners and foreign companies, this is a very minor blip on the radar screen of average folks.
I bring this up not to suggest that I discard blogging about my area of expertise (that would be self-defeating). Rather, I’ve been thinking recently that I should dip into some local legal cases, the ones that are generating a lot of buzz online, as they relate to public perception of the legal system (i.e. the rule of law).
I do not have a background in criminal law or procedure here, so expect less commentary and more reporting from me when it comes to these cases. One final caveat: my information comes from news accounts and online discussions, the accuracy of which is always highly suspect. The facts are secondary to the discussion itself and what this tells us about people’s opinion of the legal system.
As is true everywhere, violent cases often get the most attention. A recent incident in Hubei has generated some strong opinions.
The incident concerns a female attendant at a, well, I guess “spa” would be the closest English term. The establishment, which fronts as a place people come to take showers, is a brothel.
On the evening of May 10, three government officers from the town of Ye San Guan in Hubei went to this spa. Upon their arrival, one of the officials demanded that the attendant, who was washing clothes in the hallway of the spa, provide “special services” to him.
She refused, at which point he struck her several times. When she tried to leave the room, he forced her onto a sofa. A struggle ensued, which included all three of these men holding her down on the sofa. At some point during this struggle she took out a knife and stabbed the first official in the throat (he eventually died) and also injured one of the other officials.
The attendant then called the police and turned herself in. Since then, she has been held in police custody pending an investigation. She is under suspicion of murder and has undergone a psychiatric examination following the discovery by the police that she was in possession of anti-depressant medication.
Why has this case generated so much attention? Many people see this as a fairly obvious case of self-defense, but because of the involvement of government officials, the belief is that the police are not treating this woman fairly but are protecting their fellow town officials (????).
There are overtones not only of unequal treatment of private citizens here, but also of women (????). If this woman has been forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation, this is also troubling. It may be warranted, but on the other hand, this sort of method has been used in the past by the police to discredit witnesses or other “troublemakers” (check out the movie Changeling for an example of an extreme case in the U.S. years ago).
Online comments have focused on the lack of viable choices available to this woman. Some have said that charging her with murder implies that she should have consented to the rape in the first place.
The issue of unequal treatment is central to this case. It comes up over and over again across the country in criminal and other matters. In the U.S., unequal treatment is generally associated with race, gender and (perhaps most importantly) class/wealth differences. In China, it is public vs. private, as well as class/wealth.