CHAPTER 20Reform, Reform, Reform

Obedience to codebook law has never been a native characteristic,” wrote the British thinker Putnam Weale in 1925. Chinese common folk have historically distrusted rigid rule systems, opting instead for loose arrangements that give officials room to maneuver. Because every case is entirely unique the thinking goes, judgment should be tailored to each situation. In other words, Chinese prefer the rule of man to the rule of law.

Americans pride themselves on the rights they afford the accused. “Better that ten guilty persons go free than one innocent suffer conviction.” As nice as the old saying may be, people too often fall through the cracks of the American legal system. The police officer had no choice but to make the stop, which automatically triggered the arrest. The legal defense team was constrained by procedural guidelines, as was the judge, who ultimately handed down a decision based not on his many years of experience but on a mandatory minimum sentencing law. As a result, the young perpetrator who ought to have been given a slap on the wrist ends up doing life without chance of parole.

“Chinese law is characterized by the severity of its penalties, combined with leniency in their enforcement,” wrote James Bashford in 1916. Westerners assume that Chinese people distrust their own legal system since innocents are sometimes arrested without cause and tried without due process. In spite of admitted failures in this regard, Chinese still ...

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