Most concerns about China’s growth tend to focus on issues such as the ageing population, rising inequality or wasted investment, but Li Daokui, an outspoken scholar, argues that the absence of an independent judiciary is the root of all China’s problems.
Although it is an obvious truth, it is rare for anyone to say so in public. Li, an academic adviser to China’s central bank, made the comment at the high-profile World Economic Forum in Tianjin, suggesting that Chinese authorities can ignore the issue no longer. After all, China’s economic environment has changed dramatically during the past 30 years. The system that has worked before is not necessarily suitable now, and the country needs a new set of conditions to keep growing.
“Any ruling party can’t remain in power for long without an independent judiciary,” Li said. “A sound legal system is the very foundation of market economies, but in China, the government retains an ambiguous relationship with the court.”
He added: “In China, only 2% of lawyers are willing to defend in a litigation, which is probably the lowest in the world, because they understand it’s useless to defend.”
Li reckons the lack of a sound legal system is the reason why China’s stock market remains underdeveloped after a 20-year effort at market reform.
Li’s view is echoed by Zhu Min, a Chinese economist and the deputy managing director of the IMF, who said on another panel that China is in need of a more developed legal system to improve bank transparency.
It is quite rare for people with such strong government backgrounds to challenge the country’s legal environment, but the audience didn’t seem to take it seriously.
“They point out the problems we already know,” said one delegate, a professor at Tsinghua University, on the sidelines of the forum. “Knowing your problem is one thing, having the guts to solve it is another.”
There are cultural factors that contribute to the lack of an independent judiciary. The Chinese traditionally think litigation is something shameful that one should avoid. Chinese society generally expects everyone to obey the traditional rituals rather than rules of law. Historically, disputes could only be mediated by people with higher social status – and this thinking still exists in some rural areas today.
Despite three decades of fast economic growth, China’s political and legal reforms are lagging behind. Meanwhile, the growing wealth has fostered a desire for people to have their voices heard — and the internet has given them a forum to do so.
Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service, displays public opinion from all levels of society and acts as a kind of substitute for the absence of an independent judiciary in the country.
One recent outrage on Weibo was ignited by the ordeal of Tang Hui, a 39-year-old mother who was sent to a labour camp for protesting that the men who raped and prostituted her 11-year-old daughter had been treated too leniently. Tang was sentenced to 18 months re-education through labour for “disturbing the social order and exerting a negative impact on society” after she repeatedly petitioned local officials in Hunnan. The sentence sparked fury on Weibo and Tang was released, but all comments on her tragedy were erased too.
A better system is needed.