It is all too easy for lawyers in the West to be oblivious to the fact that the access to justice and the rule of law that, by and large, we enjoy in the Western democracies are not available to millions of our fellow citizens elsewhere in the world. With the Beijing Olympics now little over a fortnight away, Jamil Anderlini’s article in FT.com, Rewards and risks of a career in the legal system, offered a corrective to our all too often blinkered outlook.
In it he highlights the position in China, contrasting the very different professional experiences of Teng Biao, an activist lawyer on the outskirts of Beijing, and Tao Jingzhou, a partner in Jones Day’s Beijing office.
The realities of living in a totalitarian state also lend uncertainty to the legal system. Opportunities abound for powerful individuals to intervene, says He Weifeng, an outspoken legal professor at Peking University. “Actually, there is no real legal system in the western sense in China,” he declares.
Enforcement of existing legislation is often lax – something that becomes apparent when you compare China’s excellent environmental laws with the reality outside the window or read the country’s constitution, which guarantees all citizens freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of political association. In criminal cases and high-profile civil cases, political interference is rife, while in smaller cases bribing judges and prosecutors is the norm.
“The biggest problem with China’s legal system is that politics and the law are not separate,” says Mr Teng. “An independent judiciary is not possible under the current system because the law is regarded as a tool to serve the party.”