Confucianism and Trade Imbalances

The enlightened dictatorship of money

What “rule of law” really means

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I promise I will keep the expat-grumbling on this blog to a minimum, but the 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing has received international press.

The China Daily – a Communist Party-linked paper – had this to say in defense of the new campaign:

It is natural to criticize anyone who ignores basic social decencies and to prosecute someone who breaks the law.

And those countries accusing China of xenophobia for tackling illegal immigration should cast the beams out of their own eyes first as their immigration policies are a great deal harsher and stricter than ours.

Foreign nationals in China have nothing to fear as long as they have valid visas and do not break the law.

This passage isn’t that unique, but it is a good example of the way China uses public diplomacy to justify itself.  I myself would tend to glance over that passage without thinking about it too much.

The ironic part about this editorial, reading between the lines, is that even seems to acknowledge a bit of weakness on the government’s part in its ability to enforce its own laws.  Having had run-ins with the immigration department in the past myself, however, I know that their conception of laws is very different from what we have in the West, to the extent that statements like the above are almost deliberately misleading.  The background of Chinese laws is in philosophical legalism – a top-down doctrine (said to have been favored by Mao) in which the concept of “legal protections” is almost an oxymoron.

One thing you will commonly hear from businesspeople and others in China is that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.  Their system of laws is so complex (often poorly understood even by people who are supposed to be in charge) that trying to figure out their system would severely restrict economic activity.  There’s a school that is interested in hiring me, for instance, but in order for me to get a work visa, I would need to commit to a couple of years there.  (They get visas for one year, but apparently it looks bad on the school if too many people come in and stay only one year.)  I don’t think I’m offending a potential future employer to say that this is a ridiculous requirement, and I seriously doubt that anyone will take them up on that offer.  If I go there, it will be illegal.

These sorts of requirements, combined with the “breaking the law” rhetoric above, lead me to the following question: what percentage of Chinese domestic economic activity could be stopped if the government simply decided to enforce every rule that was on its books?  Although I am most familiar with a relatively small segment of the overall Chinese economy, my intuition is that the answer to the question is somewhere (far) north of 50%.  I bring this question up not because I have a solid answer, but just because asking the question helps make a point in its own right.  The Economist has a chart of the day that might give you a hint.

But please leave your thoughts below if you have any insight on the matter.


Written by Maofucious

June 23, 2012 at 6:58 PM

Posted in Confucianism

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