Thursday, July 10, 2014
I was struck by this sentence in an editorial in China's redoubtable Global Times. Sounding for all the world like Spiro Agnew or Rush Limbaugh, it argued that "radical liberals" should be less critical, and warned, "It is a misunderstanding of law if one believes criticism only has to abide by law without adhering to the political bottom line." It then went on to say, "The problem is that these people must know where society's bottom line is. They need to restore respect to the rule of law. . . . No matter what their political beliefs are, they cannot cross the red line of laws."
What can it mean to imply, on the one hand, that excessive criticism "cross[es] the red line of laws", while apparently conceding on the other hand that such criticism might still be law-abiding, but that that's not enough?
It would be easy to dismiss this as just the Global Times's nonsensical and self-contradictory misunderstanding of what law is all about. But I think we get closer to understanding what law is all about in China if we start with the assumption that this set of statements makes sense, and then figure out what must be true if the statements make sense.
In fact, I think the Global Times is just reflecting a realistic understanding of the relationship between law and politics (by which I mean the preferences of the Chinese Communist Party) in China, which is that it doesn't make sense to draw a strict line between them. After all, this is a single-party dictatorship. Any principle that isn't actually law could in short order be law if the Party wanted it that way. It's just a question of time or of preference as to mode of policy implementation. Thus, it really is in a sense a kind of pedantic formalism to insist that I ought to be in the clear because my act did not violate the law if I clearly knew at the same time that it violated the preferences of the Party. To distinguish between the preferences of the state and the preferences of the group of people running the state makes sense only if there might be a different group running the state later on, and if policy preferences gain political legitimacy only after passing through a state legislative process. In China, policy preferences gain political legitimacy after passing through a Party process.