Monday, August 9, 2010

On how the lack of rule-of-law in China affects my life (and it isn’t good)

We all know that the rule of law is one of the important features of functioning democracies. It's important to know what the rules are and what will happen if you break one of them. Or what to do to get things done. For example, if you need permission to work in a National Park back home, you can find on a website a procedure by which you apply and get permission. This is a relatively known quantity. Having a relative who is an official at the park isn't going to really help you. You can't take the park director out and get him drunk to get your permission. Here things are really arbitrary. Connections make all the difference. If you have the right connections, you can get a park pass by getting someone drunk. If you don't, you need to go through a long application processes. Actually, even that takes connections. If you have no connections at all, the whole thing can take a long time, if it ever gets done.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently for the very mundane issue of making sure that we don't get parked in in our parking lot (the one outside our building). It's only happened once when it really mattered – when Jessi and CJ were here – but it has been something we think about every time we park the car since then.

What happens is this. The parking lot is small and triangular shaped (stupid shape, I know). It is supposed to be primarily for people who live in the complex. There is another small and stupidly shaped parking lot behind the management building for people who work here and live in the other housing complex (most of the staff). Since not many people in our complex own cars, there are some spots left for other staff who live at the other complex. Maybe you could fit 20 cars in the lot if you parked just around the edges. Careful parking may fit another 3 or 4. The other lot could fit another 10 or so cars and still allow everyone to get out.

The problem is that there are probably 50 cars trying to park between the two lots every day. More now that it's summer. Many of these cars belong to tourists or tour guides. Neither of who are supposed to use the lots. There is no parking attendant. No one charging people to park. No one putting notes on cars which aren't supposed to be there. And no one telling people they can't park others in. So every day people park in a totally haphazard manner all over the lot. They triple park. They park sideways. They park next to the dumpster and along the side of the already narrow bridge into the lot. The park staff generally all work from 8:30-12 and 2:30-6 every day, so most people want to drive home for lunch and an afternoon nap. However, when there are so many cars parked in such a random way, it's quite difficult to get out. Sometimes one tourist car will block in 3 park staff. Or the opposite happens after lunch and the tourists want to leave for their hotel around 5 but no one is off work yet. They could be parked in by park staff. One day at lunch time we saw people hoisting up the back of a car (it was small) and sliding it slightly to the left so that they could get two cars out. Later that day a tourist was stuck for 45 minutes waiting for staff to leave.

This problem could be solved fairly easily.

1)      Issue stickers to park staff

2)      Patrol the lot and put tickets on cars which are parking people in or parked stupidly (like parallel when it's a back into spot)

3)      Don't let tourists in

The problem is that the tourists and tour guides who get in are the ones with connections. This is where the rule of law bit comes in. If there were rule of law, it wouldn't matter who you know where, you couldn't park in the staff parking lot. But because there isn't rule of law, people who have the right connections or paid the right people or took the right person out drinking can park in the staff parking lot. This in turn results in way too many cars in the lot and precipitates a lot of the problems. To make it worse, people know if they park in back they'll get parked in, so well before the lot fills up they start parking in the cars towards the front. We have identified 2 spots which never get parked in and we do everything possible to make sure we get one. We have gone out at 9 pm to move the car once everyone is gone to ensure we get the right spot.

Another way that the lack of rule of law is apparent is in the poor driving skills and total lack of enforcement of traffic laws. We regularly see police officers yelling into the bullhorns on their cars at people to move out of (totally legal) parking spots just to harass them. They could be being significantly more useful by actually monitoring traffic on the road. The weave, where one car passes a slower car on the right while another car passes them both on the left, or some variation of that, is quite common. People honk for no reason. They stop in the middle of the road. They move to the right before turning left. They don't use blinkers. They don't stop at stop-lights or accelerate through intersections. They double park on the side of the road. They drive in the shoulder. They speed through town. They pass on blind corners. They ignore the red flag telling them not to pass through the single lane construction zone and just honk at you until you get out of their way. None of these things are legal but none are enforced. It makes for rather hairy driving, walking on the side of the road, or cycling.

A final example of a manifestation of the lack of rule of law with driving is the caravans of official cars. When someone is important (or some people are important), they get in a caravan of black SUVs with dark tinted windows, turn on an awful horn, turn on their little lights on the top of the car, turn on their blinkers, and drive as fast as they want down the middle of the road. Sometimes roads will get closed for an official traveling to Chengdu. We basically just bail as far to the right side of the road as possible when we see these caravans. Why should these people get to ignore all the traffic laws? What if they kill a kid by speeding through a village? An unfortunate side effect of this legal law-breaking is that people with lots of money to pay off traffic cops will illegally install sirens and flashing lights on their cars. Usually they own Toyota Prados or Land Cruisers. These folks then speed around like they aren't driving dangerous machines and simply honk until you get out of their way. I think they would have no qualms about running you over if you didn't. It's completely absurd that the rules of the road don't apply to important people. If they don't apply to important people then why should everyone else feel like they need to follow the law?

It would certainly help if they made speed limits reasonable (30 kmh is way too slow for down a major arterial through town, for example) and enforced them. They also need to simply crack down on people who buy driver's licenses, cars without registration, and all the other rules of the road which are so carefully tested in the 100-question driving exam. And stop letting it be ok for important people to ignore the rules. They would do well to follow the example of the ICAC in Hong Kong. Starting with the police officers.

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