Two very different stories played out on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait on Thursday, but the common denominator was the enforcement of the rule of law, Chinese style, and neither of them were in any way confidence-inspiring, though that was apparently the message that was supposed to be conveyed.
Here in Taipei there were huge smiles and handshakes all round as Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) signed an investment protection accord and customs cooperation pact at the Grand Hotel.
The investment protection pact is aimed at establishing a mechanism to resolve government-to-government (notice it was not nation-to-nation), private-to-private and private-to-government (P2G) disputes, and helping protect the rights of Taiwanese businesspeople in China. It will allow investors to seek arbitration, either in China or Taiwan, to resolve disputes.
Three problems are already evident: one, China does not yet have the laws in place to allow for P2G commercial disputes or their resolution; two, there is no requirement for mandatory arbitration; and three, Taiwanese will still be at the mercy of the Chinese legal system, which is barely legal at all.
That legal system was on display on Thursday in Hefei as Gu Kailai (谷開來), wife of former politburo member Bo Xilai (薄熙來), and family aide Zhang Xiaojun (張曉軍) went on trial on the charge of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood in November last year in Chongqing. Neither defendant reportedly contested the charges. Of course neither had the counsel of their choice, being forced to accept government-appointed lawyers. The trial took place nowhere near where the alleged crime was committed. And the entire trial was wrapped up — in a closed courtroom — in seven hours. While the verdict is to be announced later, there is no doubting it will result in either a long jail term or execution.
It seems likely that Gu will be spared execution — she was reportedly “trying to protect her son’s name,” while Zhang, who allegedly administered the poison, gets the death sentence. No mention of Gu’s husband or his vast business dealings or his political ambitions. No mention of whether he will face trial himself or whether the favorite Chinese leadership blame game — blame the wife for all evils — will be played out once again. Of course, the entire script for Thursday’s trial could have been written in advance. That is the convenient thing about having a judicial system under the control of the ruling party that serves to enforce the government’s interests, not the law’s.
That is why it is easy to write the script now for any business dispute that goes into arbitration in China, whether it is on the private level, corporate-to-government, or government-to-government. The odds are stacked against any Taiwanese plaintiff winning an arbitration case, especially if they are going up against entrenched party interests at the local or central government level. It is also unimaginable, laughable even, to think that Beijing would allow any government-to-government dispute to be arbitrated in Taiwan.
The newly inked investment protection accord is not worth the paper it is printed on, no matter what Chiang says. His claim that the investment pact will offer cross-strait investors stronger institutionalized protection in terms of property rights, management rights and personal safety is sheer pap.