Wen Jiabao

Tighter control

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am

Most see the saga of blind activist Chen Guangcheng as an international incident. I see it mainly as a domestic matter whose resolution is vital to our national interest as China evolves into an orderly modern state. Friends have advised me against speaking out on this case, given its sensitivity. But, as a deputy of the National People's Congress, staying quiet at such critical moments would constitute a dereliction of duty.

You might recall the case of the milk activist Zhao Lianhai, which became a cause celebre for many Hong Kong NPC deputies. Then, we helped to resolve the matter to some satisfaction. I believe we can do the same here.

It is clear from Chen's actions that the central government is not the author of his misery. Otherwise, he wouldn't have made a direct video appeal to Premier Wen Jiabao to look into his complaint and take appropriate action to right the perceived wrongs.

China is a big and complex country. The arm of the state may not be long enough to reach every corner of the country. As a Chinese saying goes, 'The mountain is high and the emperor is far away'. Time and again, it is local officials, who, with their unchecked powers, have got the central government entangled in ugly incidents that have tarnished the country's reputation.

We are not in possession of all the facts surrounding Chen's case. From news reports, we see he was subjected to extrajudicial house arrest after serving his sentence for two convictions: wilfully causing the destruction of property, and inciting a crowd to cause traffic disruptions. It is inconceivable that a blind man could be capable of wilfully causing property destruction, and, even if true, did that offence and causing traffic disruptions really merit a prison sentence of over four years?

Governance and the administration of justice vary from province to province, and even from county to county. In the case of Wukan village earlier this year, a dispute was peacefully resolved by the decisive intervention of the party secretary of Guangdong, Wang Yang , who has been hailed as an enlightened leader and model administrator capable of defusing an explosive situation. If senior local officials in Shandong had done likewise, Chen's case would not have escalated into something that grabbed the attention of the international press and foreign governments and caused China so much distress and embarrassment.

Down the centuries, the administration of justice has been a headache for national leaders of this sprawling country. Even going back to dynastic China, there has been the time- honoured practice of aggrieved folks making the long trek to the capital to petition the central authorities to right wrongs. But this petition system, in its modern incarnation, is far from perfect, and some local officials have even been known to resort to forcibly escorting petitioners back to their home province.

Wen stated emphatically in his work report in March that the government is serious about implementing the rule of law across the country - an essential step in China's development as a rule-governed modern state. But the rule of law can only take root if officials at the local level buy into it, and if there are effective checks and balances against egregious abuses of power which often entail forcible land confiscations.

A functioning modern state needs workable, healthy safety valves for the resolution of popular grievances. When the dust has finally settled on Chen's case, the central government should seriously and thoroughly look into the circumstances underlying his cry for justice. This is a necessary step if the government is to effectively promote social stability and ensure that the system serves the people.

Implementing the rule of law takes officials who are imbued with its spirit. As I see it, each year, some 6.5million students graduate from mainland universities. These graduates, with their ingrained sense of fair play and justice, would make excellent officials and should be encouraged to join the ranks of the civil service, especially at the local level.

This would not only improve local governance, but would also provide gainful employment to an army of young people who can serve a vital national purpose. They are China's best guarantee of a dependable system of civil administration that can dispense justice and fair treatment.

When local officials flout the laws, they undermine the nation's social stability. The abusive application of local power runs counter to the national interests. Being responsive to individual or collective grievances is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength and administrative wisdom. These are virtues China needs, now that it is a major player in international affairs. Treating our people right not only spares us international embarrassment, it also restores our ancient reputation as a nation of civility and good order.

Michael Tien Puk-sun is a Hong Kong deputy of the National People's Congress and vice-chair of the New People's Party