By Jillian Smith
It was an unseasonably warm evening in Shanghai as my friends and I walked out from dinner at “the spicy soup shop.” The shop had become our staple, even though the food was seasoned in a way that made me forget what it was like to have feeling in my lips. An immigrant Muslim family owned the restaurant, and therefore did not shutter completely to celebrate the Lunar New Year, as was the case with every other restaurant. The owner welcomed his monopoly over the foreign student market, even if the feeling in my tongue did not.
Trying to apologize to my mouth for what I had just done to it, I turned to ask Adam, a Chinese local and my newly minted friend, and asked about his life in Shanghai, hoping to keep my mind off the pain. I asked standard “get to know you” type questions, expecting standard responses. But, one question I asked, which seemed quite innocuous, belied a far deeper aspect of Chinese society than I had planned.
I asked Adam what his favorite part of living in Shanghai was. His response? Justice.
Having expected an answer that resembled there is more nightlife or better job prospects, justice was very perplexing to me. I probed further, while internally lamenting that language was a complex thing and that ideas simply couldn’t be transmuted from one human to another. Adam performed a heroic feat in attempting to explain his thought.
He liked Shanghai, he explained, because back home in the countryside, government officials could do whatever they wanted, and would not be punished for it. If a government official damaged your property or stole something from you, there was no way to complain or have your property restored. Worse yet, even if you did complain, most of the officials were part of powerful families and were all related, and therefore had no incentive to take action against one of their own. When I asked him if this had ever happened to him, he paused. No, he said, because his grandfather was very tough.
In contrast, Shanghai was a place where you could have your property restored. People and the government were accountable. They would get in trouble for wrong doings. His grandfather did not necessarily have to be tough, he further noted.
Perhaps in Shanghai, the financial capital of Asia, the rule of law has become a more standard practice due to Western business influence, where concepts such as contract reciprocity are a necessity to drive global business. But even business dealing with Shanghai-based Chinese companies are well-known for the practice of guan xi, or the giving of preferential treatment to those with whom one has either established relations or from whom one has received a gift.
The rule of law is something I take for granted in the United States. So much so that it didn’t even occur me to that a quick Internet search on the rule of law in China while using local Wi-Fi would turn up mostly blocked sites, which it did. President Xi Jinping came to power on the promise that he would eliminate corruption and promote judicial fairness. In 2013, the president explained that his crackdown, which mostly arrested human rights lawyers and activist celebrities, was promoting a rule of law that was a “knife whose handle was in the hands of the (Communist) party and the hands of the people.”
Whether or not one agrees with the idea of President Trump’s “travel ban,” the federal judicial ruling that has forced the State Department to cease the ban is truly a remarkable testament to the strength of the rule of law in our nation. Despite Mr. Trump’s dislike of the ruling of the “so-called judge,” not even the highest officeholder in our land is above the authority of our legal system. It can be easy to forget what an astounding concept this human experiment in a government that is accountable to the people who put it in power and is answerable to the same laws that it creates. It is also easy to forget the immense sacrifice required to ensure the continued success of this experiment. From my vantage point of the People’s Republic of China, I am quite amazed and thankful for a nation where a President can lose a legal suit and must comply with the results in the same way that you or I must.