Tuesday, March 31, 2009
It's been quite a while since I last blogged, so I'm a bit behind on current events.
Last February, the US State Department issued its annual report on human rights in China - something it does by congressional mandate for every country. The report for China is here; there's also one for Taiwan here.
Predictably, the Chinese government responded - not with a statement that addressed any actual inaccuracies in the report, but with a report on human rights problems in the United States (Chinese | English). I have never understood why the Chinese government feels that this is an appropriate or convincing response to criticism. Does Chen Guangcheng feel better in his prison cell in China - and should the rest of us feel better about this travesty of justice - knowing that there were 17,000 murders in the United States in 2007? Moreover, it does not take a great legal mind to recognize that in issuing such a report, China completely undercuts its own position that such reports are an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Since the State Department's report is not footnoted, it would be relatively easy for the government to accuse the State Department of simply making the stuff up. That won't wash, however, with the meticulously sourced human rights report produced annually by the Congressional-Executive China Commission; the latest one is here, tipping the scales at an astounding (by my count) 1,743 footnotes. Of course, footnoting a claim doesn't make it true, but it makes a discussion about the truth or falsity of the claim much more feasible.
I am told that the US government last year posted the Chinese government's critical report on the web site of the US Embassy in Beijing; I can't find that report or this year's on the web site now, but hope the US government has not abandoned this excellent practice.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
So said a spokesperson for the Supreme People's Court on March 2nd (Chinese | English). I'll believe it when I see it. So far the courts have simply been refusing either to accept or reject the cases brought before them, a common practice of courts faced with cases they'd rather not handle, even though it violates Art. 112 of the Civil Procedure Law, which requires a decision one way or the other within 7 days. According to the Caijing article linked below, even the SPC has been playing this game: a suit was brought directly to the SPC on Jan. 16 of this year, but it has yet to make any response.
Moreover, we have to see just how the courts will handle these suits - according to the usual principles of tort law, or according to some new and probably non-transparent policy. (A court official already told one of the lawyers filing suit, ""We have the responsibility of guiding you toward accepting the compensation plan from the companies involved ... According to our situation, we are prepared to give the same amount of compensation as the dairies.")
The SPC spokesperson announcing the new policy stated that 95% of victim's families had already accepted compensation. This may be the court's way of saying that they won't be allowed to sue, but it may have to change its mind if there's enough public pressure.
I have received the following announcement. The fund in question operates under the auspices of the US-China Business Council. This is a pretty good grant program - they try to minimize the formalities that often go with grant applications.
The U.S.-China Legal Cooperation Fund invites proposals seeking grants to fund projects fostering rule of law in China, to be carried out jointly by American and Chinese not-for-profit participants.
The Fund's objective is to promote respected and equitable legal processes and institutions in China through U.S.-China bilateral projects.
The Spring 2009 deadline for submission of proposals is April 1, 2009.
Further information is available at www.uschinalegalcoop.org.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Here's a synopsis of what it's all about, quoting from the announcement I received (the complete announcement is here). Application deadline is March 31, 2009.
The Public Interest Law Institute (PILI) is pleased to invite applications for its Public Interest Law Fellows Program for 2009–2010. PILI will select lawyers from China and Nepal for ten months of study and practical experience in New York and Budapest, Hungary. The program targets future leaders in various fields of public interest advocacy. Criteria for selection include:
• Applicants must have a minimum of two years of relevant work experience with the nominating organization;
• Potential to contribute to the development of public interest law advocacy in his or her country;
• Track record of the nominating organization in promoting public interest advocacy; and
• The quality of the Fellowship Project proposal and its potential for promoting public interest law and human rights.
PILI Fellows will join other public interest lawyers from around the world. They will reside a total of eight months in the U.S., consisting of one semester of study at Columbia University and additional public interest advocacy training. The Fellows also participate in a three-month internship in a New York area public interest law organization. Following their experience in New York, Fellows participate in a two-month study visit, based in Europe out of PILI’s Budapest office. Fellows return to their home countries after the Fellowship, with the aim to implement the project developed during the Fellowship.
PILI will cover the cost of a round-trip coach airfare to the U.S. and Budapest, housing in New York and Budapest, a monthly stipend, a textbook allowance and accident insurance. Selected candidates for the fellowship are required to sign an agreement to the terms of the fellowship, stating that they will complete it in full.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
My pal Matt Forney, a wonderful guitar player who used to pick up a few bucks on the side as the head of Time's Beijing bureau, recently had an interesting piece in the Washington Post about traffic law violations in Beijing. Although one might quarrel with his metaphor for the malleability of law in China - a fiberglass bumper (a fiberglass bumper isn't all that malleable) - the piece nevertheless offers an interesting window into the nitty-gritty of law enforcement.
Essentially, the police in Beijing have established a system of tradeable speeding permits; if you've got the money, you can buy the right to break the speed limit from others who value that right less. Matt discovered this when he went to renew his car registration and was told that he (or his Italian wife; he gallantly blames her) had racked up enough speeding violations to warrant losing their licenses several times over. (They hadn't been informed of these violations or of the mounting penalty points; you only find out when you go to renew your vehicle license every year unless you know enough to log on to a particular web site and check your record periodically. This police practice, aimed at maximizing revenue from fines, became a minor scandal a few years ago. I blogged about it here and here; the police promised in 2005 to start notifying motorists, but apparently still aren't doing so.)
When Matt asked plaintively what, if anything, could be done, a bored police officer eventually suggested that he do what everyone else does: "Just find other drivers with clean licenses to clear your points for you." Matt went online and found a used Volkswagen dealer who washed his record clean for $7 a point. He writes in the same article about a friend of his who owns a trucking company and used his truckers' points (until they were exhausted) to get away with going 125 mph on Beijing's airport expressway.
In case anyone thinks this is no different from the system of tradeable pollution rights, it is. In the theory of tradeable pollution rights, society makes a decision about how much pollution it is going to put up with, but it doesn't matter who is doing the polluting provided the ceiling is not exceeded. If you want a ceiling of 100 units of pollution, you don't care if A provides 10 units and B provides 90, or if each provides 50. By contrast, if 50 mph is the socially desirable speed limit, there is not an equal social danger presented by (1) A going 10 mph and B going 90 (or more simply A staying under and B going over), and (2) each going 50 mph. The first scenario is worse.
What I can't figure out is why the police permit this. It can't happen without the police cooperating in shifting points off one person's record and onto another's, and doing it on (presumably) a one-for-one basis. Do they charge a fee for doing it? (Since Matt did his trade through a third party, the issue didn't arise for him personally.) If so, it would then make sense; the police make no money from taking away your license, so it makes sense for them to figure out a way for you to keep it provided they can get a fee out of the deal.
This resembles environmental law enforcement in some ways, as described in a great book: Xiaoying Ma & Leonard Ortolano, Environmental Regulation in China: Institutions, Enforcement, and Compliance (2000). In that book they describe how local environmental protection agencies would rather see fineable violations than unpunishable compliance or, at the other extreme, a complete shutdown. I've always liked this book because the authors, in setting out to write a specialized book about environmental regulation in China, accidentally (I think) ended up writing a very insightful book about the Chinese legal system as a whole.