Tue, Apr 12, 2011 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Rule of law or rule by law?

Facing another round of criticism by academics over the weekend about fears of abuse of power, the Presidential Office again responded by maintaining that Taiwan was a country of law and order, and that the authorities were only following the law.

The matter in question, which involves allegations that 17 senior officials in former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration failed to return as many as 36,000 documents — several of them classified — seemed untoward from the beginning, coming as it did almost three years after the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) return to power and as the campaign for next year’s presidential election began to shift into gear.

Some of the DPP officials targeted include former Mainland Affairs Council chairman Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), a man with impeccable political credentials, as well as former premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), who is one of the three candidates in the DPP presidential primary.

While some could dismiss the timing as mere happenstance, the explanation collapses when it is taken in the context of the Presidential Office’s reaction to the criticism.

“Taiwan is a country of law and order,” Presidential Office spokesman Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強) was quoted as saying by the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister paper) yesterday.

What Lo fails to tell us is whether he means rule of law or rule by law, a seemingly minute nuance that, in countries with a history of authoritarian rule, can make a world of a difference. Indeed, if we think about it, Lo’s explanation means nothing whatsoever.

A police officer could claim he is enforcing the law when, seeing 10 car thieves, he chooses to arrest six perpetrators, while allowing the other four to get away. What the officer doesn’t tell us is that the four who fled are close friends, in which case the selective enforcement itself becomes a political act. Another scenario could be that while none of the 10 have any association with the officer, his decision to only arrest six is based on, say, their appearance or perceived political affiliation. Again, the officer is technically enforcing the law, but there is more to his action (or inaction) than meets the eye.

Worryingly, justification for police action against specific groups by claiming rule of law and order is an instrument the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has refined for more than 60 years. However anodyne the act, by arresting or harassing individuals the CCP has repeatedly quoted the law, in the process creating the illusion that the law-abiding state has no choice but to take action. In reality, it is the CCP, not the alleged “criminal,” that is the real enemy of the state, as rule by law is used to crush dissent and eliminate whoever threatens the party’s hold on power.

Over the years, the CCP’s abuse of such rationalization has turned into farce and few believe the rhetoric when it claims that individuals like Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) or artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), to name just a few, are criminals threatening national security.

As a declaration by the Tiananmen Mothers movement said in 1998: “China’s current legal system is in reality still a tool used by the ruling clique to maintain and safeguard its grip on power.”

While President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT has yet to attain the level of surrealism seen in China’s legal system, the selective disposition of the judiciary under its watch and the specific targeting of DPP officials points to a campaign to undermine its opponents.

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