09
Feb
08

The Paradox of the Police State

I doubt I’m the first person to make this observation, and to that end, I’m quite interested in seeing what others have written about it. But it has to do with what I’ve increasingly noticed here in China, that is, that despite it being a brutal police state that tolerates no dissent, there seems to be a flagrant, almost cavalier attitude that people here exhibit about the law in certain contexts, in ways that would be unthinkable in the United States.

The best examples I’ve encountered thus far are in my job search. The thing is, I’m currently here in China on a tourist visa. This means that legally speaking, I may not work in the People’s Republic of China, and until I can get my visa upgraded to a work visa, I could be subject to fines, detainment, imprisonment, and deportation if I do work.

Yet I’ve had a very difficult time finding an employer who takes this work visa issue seriously. The fellow in charge of one agency I interviewed with just came right out and said, “Well, you could work here illegally…” My jaw dropped. Is he mad? Not so much, I’m finding out. Most of the English teachers he employs do not have work visas, and the interviewer at the second agency I met with looked positively annoyed that I even brought it up. It’s been a week since I visited his office, and I don’t expect him to call back, even though he promised to “look into it.” The guy at the first agency told me that if I really wanted one, he had certain connections with firms that could get me a work visa, but it could run me as much as 3000 RMB (about $420). What gives?

My theory is this. Maintaining a fully totalitarian state, that is, one that not only has laws covering all aspects of life but also the means and will to enforce all of them, is nearly impossible in the long term. Oh sure, for short periods of time, especially during wars, a state may be able to brutally enforce its will in all components of life. But eventually, the state has to start choosing priorities. The Chinese state is plagued with corruption, so naturally that’s where one of its major focuses is now, though there again, it’s so rampant that it would be virtually impossible to stop it all, even if Chinese law now allows the death penalty for corruption (which it does).

To a degree that would be shocking to all but the most libertarian among us, most laws are enforced … by the citizens themselves. And not so much by vigilantism, Stasi-type survalence, or the like, but rather because the laws themselves are sensible, people find themselves capable of obeying them even where they might have a good chance of getting away with breaking them.

So while the Chinese state obsesses with illegitimate and unjust laws, that prove very difficult to enforce, such as bans on dissent, religious suppression, anti-Tibetan and anti-Uyghur ethnic cleansing measures, laws in more trivial aspects of life find themselves not being taken seriously. Meanwhile, since these kinds of laws don’t generally exist in the United States (well, I suppose, except for the War on Drugs), people typically don’t have a problem obeying the more legitimate laws that do exist, and the government has an easier time enforcing them. And naturally, you have less corruption, because people generally believe that the legal process is a transparent and trustworthy one, so fewer people would even try to engage in such activities.

I need to think more about this, but for now, I just wanted to record my puzzlement about this aspect of life in China – a brutal police state where, in many places, no one takes the law seriously, not even the police. Curiouser and curiouser.

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