China: rule of law as elusive today as under the emperors

The old woman knelt on both knees in the dusty road before the prosecutor. "Magistrate Tang," she cried, "give us justice!" Thus in the old days did the subjects of imperial China seek redress for wrongs, real or fancied, from the highest official most of them knew, their local county magistrate.

But the incident described above took place in our own times, in December 1978, according to the Nanjing magazine, Yuhua, in which the account appeared.

The story that follows shows how, under a communist government as under previous regimes, petty local tyrants, once entrenched, are exceedingly difficult to topple. It tells of blatant corruption and unpunished acts of violence made possible by a network of commune and party cadres beholden to the criminal. It shows how even the prosecutor's office, which should have behind it the full weight and majesty of the law, can be hampered and frustrated by stubborn local bosses.

"People are hungry for law," said Politburo member Peng Chen in one of the post-Cultural Revolution regime's more memorable statements. The determination of China's present leaders to establish the supremacy of law is not in question.

But Yuhua magazine's account shows the obstacles that bestrew the way before the simple concept of rule by law is accepted among the villagers who make up 80 percent of the billion people of china.

If one deputy manager of a village supply and marketing cooperative can hold at bay an experienced prosecutor representing both the party and the government, how long a road must be traveled, the article implies, before China's modernization can be achieved?

Tang Jianzhou, a party veteran and former soldier who had spent a lifetime in various legal assignments in counties of rich Jiangsu Province upriver from Shanghai, was assigned toward the end of his career to Jingjiang County as deputy chairman of the revolutionary committee (i.e., of the county government) and party secretary in charge of the county government's legal departments.

Thus, he was both a government and party official, in overall charge of the police, the courts, and the prosecutors.

His concurrent posts gave him the authority he needed to carry out his prime duty, which was that of public prosecutor, in other words, the equivalent of district attorney.

In the course of carrying out this duty he came to Daxing village. The first night of his stay, he came across the woman whose dramatic appeal opens the magazine's account. Her husband, standing beside her with crushed back and twisted lips, unable to speak, was the victim of a frame-up, she said.

The doorman of Daxing's public bathhouse, he had revealed that Zhu Qiaopu, deputy manager of Daxing's supply and marketing cooperative, was spending his nights in the hostel room of a woman employee. (The rooms on the second floor of the bathhouse were used as a hostel.)

Zhu, a large and violent man, had called the frail 65-year-old doorman in for a personal investigation, had toppled him to the floor with a single blow of his first, then hauled him before a mass meeting that night to accuse him of being a follower of a local bandit.

The doorman was imprisoned in a shed of a coal briquette storehouse for 90 days. When the flimsy shed collapsed in an autumn storm, the doorman was pinned underneath and suffered severe injuries.

Since then the doorman and his wife had appealed 14 times to the commune and county authorities, without result. Within a few days of his arrival, prosecutor Tang had interviewed more than 70 persons and received more than 100 letters, all complaining about the same Mr. Zhu.

The person who remained most vividly in his memory was a thin middle-aged woman who kept crying to all within earshot, "Zhu Qiaopu is a fine man! Zhu Qiaopu is a fine cadre of Mao Tse-tung!"

Mr. Tang was told that this woman had been an accountant at the Daxing hotel. She had dared to express an opinion about gifts given to hotel guests and not recorded properly in the hotel books. For this she was beaten for days, then left bound in a pitchblack room, her mouth stuffed to keep her from crying out.

The county commercial bureau, her direct employer, transferred her out of Daxing only after her relatives had remonstrated to county officials. By that time she was insane and had to be kept in hospital.

Prosecutor Tang decided to go directly to Zhu's house, since the man feigned illness and refused to come to his office.

Zhu received Mr. Tang with brazen heartiness, admitted that he had, in the course of his work, "gone through the back door" and that he had "offended several people." He boldly asked to be officially investigated.

It should be said here that while Mr. Tang was receiving all manner of complaints from the people, Mr. Zhu's superiors and associates were full of praise for him. They said that his cooperative had received many commendations for its good work and that Mr. Zhu himself was a hard-working, effective manager , his only fault being a hot temper.

As Prosecutor Tang continued his investigation, it became clear to him that Mr. Zhu was a spider at the center of an intricate network of connections reaching into county headquarters itself.

He got his funds by such methods as reducing the weight of 27-kilogram (about 60 lbs.) bags of chemical fertilizer to less than 25 kilograms each, and since a commune like Daxing received several hundred tons (one ton is 100,000 kilograms) per year, the total skimmed off by this method alone came to a tidy sum.

None of the people benefited by Zhu's favors would talk to Prosecutor Tang. After a full month's investigation only 300 yuans (some $200) worth of provable corruption ascribable to Zhu was uncovered.

In the end, Prosecutor Tang decided to drop charges of corruption and indict Zhu on charges of illegal detention, oppressing the masses, rape. Zhu was finally arrested and sentenced to six years' imprisonment.

Was Prosecutor Tang, then, successful in upholding the rule of law? Were the people of Daxing now convinced that law was superior to the power of some local tyrant? In a bitter interview with the writer of the article in Yuhua magazine, Mr. Tang shakes his head. To ordinary people, he said, law is still an abstract concept.

What the people want are just officials, and all he himself could hope to do for the moment was to train officials who would be just and who would put the interests of the people first.

"To try to talk to these people about systems of law is more difficult than trying to discuss space with a village elder," Mr. Tang declares.

The writer concludes his article with three statements.

First, in recent elections for a party congress at county level, Mr. Tang received the highest number of votes. This presumably reflected popular opinion.

Second, when the county's government and party committee decided to raise the salaries of senior county officials, 12 out of 15 eligible officials were selected. Mr. Tang was not among them. That, in the writer's opinion, reflected how fellow officials viewed Mr. Tang.

Third, Mr. Tang has recently decided to retire, "to set an example," he said, "for all the others who don't want to give up their posts."

Observers consider it significant that the entire long article in Yuhua, a regional magazine, was reprinted in the July issue of Xinhua Wenzhai, a monthly publication of the official New China News Agency, thus ensuring nationwide distribution and giving some indication of official sympathy at the central government level for the plight of prosecutors such as "Iron-head Tang."

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