Thursday, 15 December 2011

An ancient punishment returns to haunt China

Extended culpability for food safety lapses sets bad precedent for nation

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Guanyu 道 said...

An ancient punishment returns to haunt China

Extended culpability for food safety lapses sets bad precedent for nation

By Peh Shing Huei
15 December 2011

When the Qin Dynasty united China under one ruler for the first time in 221 BC, it introduced a harsh set of laws deemed necessary to keep the new empire intact.

Among its most draconian were the lian zuo rules - an ‘extended culpability system’ which punishes not only the culprit but also those close to him.

If a husband steals, for example, his wife will be punished too, becoming a slave of a court official.

The law even methodically specified that penalties would be extended to people linked ‘five rungs’ away from the person responsible. In modern-day speak, it means that anyone who is within five degrees of separation of the culprit would be implicated and punished.

The underlying idea is simple: using the fear of collective punishment to keep all in line.

Now, more than 2,000 years later, the lian zuo is back, and to considerable applause too.

The archaic law was resurrected last week by the city of Chongqing as part of its battle to boost food safety. When a firm is found to have broken the law, its entire supply chain, neighbours, fellow industry players and parent company or subsidiaries could all be held accountable. Officials who are in charge of food safety will also be punished.

All the parties could either be fined, suspended, forced to shut down or compelled to restructure their operations. For the officials, they will be banned from any work related to food production.

The first to fall foul of the law was a factory that collected discarded water jugs, crushed them and added some new chemicals to produce recycled jugs for sale as new. Cost-wise it is cheaper than producing a new container from scratch, but there was no assurance that the recycled jugs were free from toxic metal residues.

Besides arresting the factory owners, Chongqing officials also went after those who purchased the containers for use in selling bottled water.

‘We wouldn’t have gone after the buyers in the past,’ said Mr Hu Yafei from the city’s Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision.

In a country where food safety concerns are widespread and violations too numerous to keep track of - the latest being adulterated pork which glows in the dark - many welcome the new law.

Several media commentators hailed it as China’s ‘assassin’s mace’ (sha shou jian), its killer app, in its never-ending battle against dodgy and downright dangerous practices: from reusing expired bun fillings to spiking milk with melamine.

‘I like it. This is a forceful move to boost food safety. It’s like pulling a hair and causing the whole body to move,’ said a netizen on Sina Weibo, using a Chinese proverb to illustrate its potential for massive change.

But there is also great unease. The fear is that the move is in fact an erosion of the rule of law, and such carpet-bombing may end up butchering too many innocent parties.

As analyst Cao Lin wrote in the Xi’an Evening News: ‘The legal principle is not only to make sure we do not let a guilty man go free, it is also to ensure we do not harm an innocent man.’

It does not help that the law is introduced in Chongqing, which has been drawing much attention for its Maoist revival.

Under charismatic party secretary Bo Xilai, who is eyeing a seat in the elite Politburo Standing Committee next autumn, the city has turned into China’s ‘red capital’.

It has actively promoted the singing of the revolutionary ‘red songs’, cited Chairman Mao Zedong’s quotes as inspiration and urged a return to socialist ideals.

The new lian zuo law follows the Maoist pattern. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution from 1966, large numbers of innocent people were punished simply through guilt by association.

Guanyu 道 said...

As best-selling Chinese author Murong Xuecun said in a speech last month: ‘During the Cultural Revolution, if someone was deemed a ‘son of a bitch’, then his son would be deemed a ‘son of a bitch’, and many years later his grandson would also be deemed a ‘son of a bitch’.’

In that devastating decade in which millions died, the flimsiest association with a so-called ‘class enemy’ could mean a public thrashing, imprisonment or even death.

Chongqing’s lian zuo also continues the city’s trend of harsh and capricious law enforcement. Mr Bo has been strongly criticised by legal scholars in China for disregarding the rule of law, with cases often decided before trials have even taken place.

More worrying, the new law sets a bad precedent for China. Once such an extended culpability system is built in, there is no telling where it will stop.

Punish the airport cleaner when a plane crashes? Fine the chambermaid when there is a construction flaw in a hotel?

History shows that a draconian system can mutate into one marked by even greater excesses. The Qin’s lian zuo was the forerunner of zhu lian jiu zu, or the ‘nine kinship exterminations’, a punishment that survived successive imperial dynasties for thousands of years.

While rarely meted out, it was extremely harsh: An individual found guilty of a heinous crime such as treason was not only executed but all the members of his extended family were killed too.

While China’s food safety problem is certainly vexing, using the lian zuo system as a legal sledgehammer is not the way to go.

What the country needs is to execute its existing laws faithfully. Enforcement is too often slipshod and most offenders get away with a small fine before returning to business as usual.

Conniving officials also get away with light penalties, from redeployments to demotions, rather than being charged in court.

Going after the perpetrators would do for now. There is no need to take down their fathers, neighbours and golf buddies too.