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A Law Unto Whom?

     Is China a lawless society? At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I'd have to say: That depends.
     Western scholars make a distinction between conduct that is malum in se, intrinsically evil, and malum prohibitum, merely prohibited. The former is conduct that violates the Law of God or Natural Law (whichever is your predilection), and is considered evil in most if not all societies. Murder is the classic example. Malum prohibitum, on the other hand, refers to conduct that is otherwise innocent, but that the government has decided it doesn't want people doing, like jay-walking.
     The severity of the crime is not relevant. Some actions (say, shop-lifting an apple) might be punished lightly even though they are mala in se; some acts that are mala prohibita (such as treason) may be punished in the most severe fashion. Also, the distinction refers to laws passed by governments or governmental organizations. It is not usually applied to actions that the government ignores, even if they may violate social taboos that are enforced by peer pressure.
     Reasonable minds can differ about whether a crime is intrinsically evil or merely prohibited. Opinions can also change over time, and from one society to another. For example, it wasn't too many years ago that intermarriage between Chinese and Caucasians was considered malum in se, as contrary to God's Law, in many parts of the United States. Nowadays, as Laopo and I can attest, it's not considered malum at all.
     So, back to the question, is China lawless? If you're talking about malum in se conduct, the answer is decidedly "no". China has laws against, and severely punishes, the kinds of things that Westerners would consider intrinsically evil. A person who commits murder in Shanghai will be hunted down and punished as a criminal no less so than one who commits murder in New York.
     Traditionally, however, the Chinese attitude toward mala prohibita has differed so greatly from Western views that many people might say yes, China is lawless. Everywhere you go here, you'll see people doing things that would earn them some sort of punishment in the West, while the Chinese police just look the other way: things like driving a motor vehicle on the sidewalk, littering, selling pirated products....
     The following comment illustrates the point. It was written by a Chinese teenager who attended high school in the U.S. The author wanted to describe something strange about Americans, but in the process said at least as much about the prevailing Chinese attitude toward mala prohibita conduct:
     "Americans are such strict rule followers. I witnessed this once sitting on the sidelines of a high school dodge ball game. To me, it was goofy, a little violent, and very American. It struck me that my classmates followed the rules of the game so strictly. Even when no one noticed that a person had been hit and he could have kept playing, he voluntarily gave himself up and left the game. I was deeply impressed by how much people honored the rules even when they are not seen." (See
this Yahoo blog.)
     Since China does in fact have many mala prohibita laws on the books, "lawless" might not be the technically correct term. With but a few exceptions, however, those laws are so poorly enforced, and so commonly ignored, that "lawless" is nevertheless an apt description. The main exceptions, the mala prohibita laws that do get enforced, are the vague prohibitions against criticizing the Party or government.
     Which raises a related question: Are the Chinese people "free"? If you're talking about the kinds of political freedoms that we in the West take for granted, the answer is "don't be silly". But if you mean freedom from a law library's worth of strictly enforced mala prohibita regulations (as well as from a myriad of social taboos, like slurping your soup, yawning without covering your mouth, talking too loud in public, using adjectives as adverbials, etc.) the Chinese are in fact much freer than any Westerner.
     You can decide for yourself whether that's a good thing.

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