After revolutions started to tear decades-old dictatorships out of place in the Middle East, people in Beijing got nervous. Their response was to start disappearing lawyers, activists, and dissidents at a rate which shocks even the most cynical China watcher. Donald C. Clarke, a professor specializing in Chinese law at George Washington University, writes this essay on the crackdown, concluding that:
In China, the difference between detention according to law and detention not according to law is one of policy and convenience. If activists are ‘disappeared’, it is not because some fragile and immature rule of law has broken down in the face of overwhelming political pressures. It is because the authorities have decided that the message sent by disappearing someone is preferable to the message sent by detaining them in accordance with legal procedures, or because the detention was considered too urgent to allow time for proper procedures.
The Jasmine Crackdown less reveals than reconfirms that China’s legal system is intended to serve the purposes of the state. It can do so in ways that are more or less effective, and that produce more or less justice for individuals as a byproduct. It can develop, change and be judged by various yardsticks to be better or worse. But there was never any genuine governmental commitment to the rule of law from which the government later backtracked. China’s legal system is not developing toward a system that will restrain political power when it counts.