Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Low public confidence in legal institutions: the Dai Haijing incident

While the Chinese government constantly invokes the need for stability and harmony, more and more it appears that real stability and a modicum of harmony cannot be achieved without significant political reforms. This is shown by the extraordinary demonstrations that periodically burst out, provoked by single incidents of suspected official wrongdoing that in other countries might elicit angry editorials or letters to the editor but would scarcely bring tens of thousands onto the streets. The public simply has very little confidence in the competence and integrity of government officials.

The latest example is the case of Dai Haijing (戴海静), a teacher in Ruian, Wenzhou, who died after falling from a building. The police ruled her death a suicide caused by depression; her students, her family, and many townspeople suspect a cover-up in order to protect her wealthy husband. Needless to say, I have no idea of the merits of the controversy; for all I know, popular anger could as easily lead to the punishment of the innocent as to the unmasking of the guilty. But there is probably no leader in Wenzhou with the public standing to say, "Trust me on this," because there is no leader that ever had to be accountable to the public.

The full story, with photos of the demonstrations (including overturned and vandalized cars) is on the EastSouthWestNorth blog here.

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Sorry, Don, how does this show low confidence in the legal institutions - unless you mean by that the police? In any event, a number of polls and studies show that public trust in government officials in democratic countries, even wealthy ones, is lower than in China. Plus, it seems people often do believe govt officials - Zhu Rongji, Wen Jiabao - when they say, trust me on this. Of course, if they really didn't trust govt officials at all, there would be little point in the millions of letters and petitions to govt officials.

Posted by: Randy Peerenboom | Sep 11, 2006 6:45:26 PM

Well, actually, I did mean the police, as well as the institutions one might rely on to monitor the police, such as the procuracy or the courts. That was why I thought this worth mentioning on a law-oriented blog; I don't generally inflict on readers my opinion on purely political, economic, and other matters, since that's not what they read the blog for.

On your second point: Given our inability to read minds and know what people are thinking when they answer pollsters' questions about trust in government officials, I think it is more reliable to look at opinions revealed through actions than to assume that a person in Country X giving officials (say) a "3" on trustworthiness scale means the same thing as a person in Country Y giving the same ranking. I believe that riots such as this are a sign of lack of confidence in government institutions. The absence of riots is not, of course, a sign of confidence; it could be a sign of highly effective repression. Different explanations of the reasons for the relative frequency of such riots in some societies and their relative absence in others are of course possible.

On your third point, your logic is in my view flawed. From the fact that people petition, it does not follow that there is some substantial level of trust (i.e., greater than "low") in government officials. (If you are not asserting this, then you are not disagreeing.) We will see petitioning provided simply that some people believe that petitioning is a better use of their time and resources than some alternative way of seeking a remedy, and that even the very slim chance of a payoff makes the effort worth it. None of this is inconsistent with a low level of trust in government officials. (If your logic were correct, nobody would buy lottery tickets.)

Moreover, your logic fails to account for the vast number of people - far more numerous than petitioners - who are not petitioners. Perhaps it's because they have suffered no injustice worth petitioning about, and perhaps it's because they don't have confidence in government officials. Until we know why they aren't petitioning, we can't draw any conclusions based on the fact that some people ARE petitioning. Certainly it cannot be concluded that because some people petition, trust in government must generally be high.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Sep 11, 2006 8:48:35 PM

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