The dice that always land on red

About a week ago, Thailand’s capital Bangkok, saw the largest demonstrations since the political turmoil that gripped the country in 2010. Back then, supporters of Thailand’s exiled former Premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, took the streets. That didn’t end well – when the smoke cleared after the demonstrations, 92 people had lost their lives and over 1000 people were badly wounded. So in these past few weeks, fear of repetition of the black days in spring 2010 has had the city on needles.  

Tuesday last week, police where hurling gas canisters at protesters to stop them from entering the Government House by force. But then everything very suddenly stopped: Thursday was the King’s Birthday, and the fighting parties decided to hold a truce out of respect for the King. 24 hours later, police were receiving flowers and hugs from the very same protesters they just fought and peace befell the city for a little while.


After a short intermission celebrating the King’s Birthday together, Bangkok is now gearing up for a second round of demonstrations.

Demonstration leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has repeatedly set several deadlines for toppling the government over the course of two weeks now, and calls for Monday to be “do or die” – the Big Battle day. Monday is the day where the protesters once and for all seize control of the Government House and bring down the redshirt-movement, current Prime Minister Yingluck, big brother Thaksin, the government and everyone else affiliated with the powerful siblings.

And once again, the tension rises and the police take their place on street corners and in formations protecting government offices.  With five dead and 200 hurt last week, there is very valid concern of how things may play out now.

But actually that’s not what we need to be concerned about. There is little to do about that, other than keep calm and hope that everyone else does the same.

What we need to be concerned about is this:

There is in Thailand an elite of people with strong conservative, feudalistic values. They are high up, and they are powerful. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is one of them. The arch-enemies of the red-shirts – the yellow shirts – are also part of this elite. Several influential families. Parts of the Thai military, generals, decision makers, business leaders. All of them ready to fight for a complete break-down of the current system to rid it of the Shinawatra influence. Those are the people that are represented by 100.000 protesters marching around in Bangkok, taking over government offices these days.

Thaksin Shinawatra, on his side, is the leader of a movement, which has enormous power in Thailand due to a die-hard loyalty from red voters, particularly rural farmers from the North. At the same time, however, he is supported by enough money to keep voters happy and his affiliations are a spider’s web of powerful people reaching very far into the core of the system. Thaksin – or one of his affiliates – have won every single election they’ve ever participated in. If there was to be another election after these protests…they would win it once again. In short: Thaksin has effectively hijacked democracy in Thailand – he and his redshirts not afraid to put any disagreements to the vote, because they will always win.

This is what the protesters are trying to put a stop to, which is arguably a valid point. There is one problem, though: The alternative they present is even worse:

Their point is this: Because of the poor track record of voting in people who are corrupt (and always affiliated with Thaksin), the anti-government protesters argue that voting has to be suspended altogether. The electing must instead be taken care of by other means until the masses are educated enough to they know what they are doing. A minority with “higher moral standards” – presumably appointed by the King – must take care of governing the country instead.

Yup. That’s what the protesters in the street are out there fighting for. And with that fairly extreme stance, the options of what will happen next limit themselves to these three:

  1. If the government survives the current squatters’ siege, an administration with an eerily tight grip on majority – and a habit of taking corruption to a whole new level – will stay in seat.
  2. If there is an election, they will get re-elected.
  3. If the anti-protesters manage to take over, the country will then be led by an elite whose disregard for common people is so monumental they genuinely believe people are too stupid to vote.

Regardless of where the democratic dices land in Thailand this time, one thing is certain: All of these options lead to deeper divide in the nation. The split in between the redshirts and the opposition is only worsening over these re-occurring seemingly endless protests, and when the demands are so far from democracy that they are borderline unconstitutional, there is very little to work with. There has been no dialogue, no resolution, no common ground within the current political turmoil, so there is not really anything to drive the process of reconciliation forward. Well – maybe there is ONE thing: The fact that the entire country just days ago together in peace listened to the King’s annual speech in which he spoke beautifully of Thailand as a united nation of peace and prosperity.

So, Happy Birthday, King. Let’s hope Suthep and other destructive hotheads listened too.


By Anya Palm

Freelance journalist focusing on Southeast Asia and NIAS Associate.



A little tale about lies by Anya Palm

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.”

This was the words of Cambodian Information Minister His Excellency Khieu Kanharith when I last visited him for an interview. About a week ago.

But let´s go back a little. Let´s go back to May 2003. Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech in which he declares his intention of upgrading 100 poor neighborhoods every year, until all of Cambodia´s urban poor has secure land tenure and full basic services. All the neighborhoods are granted a social land concession. A social land concession means that the state gives the land to the people living on it.

The promise is much needed. In 2003, the South East Asian Kingdom is only a few years away from political instability, frequent guerilla attacks and Khmer Rouge strongholds that just won´t give in.

As a consequence, there is an overwhelming amount of poor people and in addition – a high number of slum dwellers.

Many of them live in the country´s capital, Phnom Penh. The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm, the one the Minister is talking about, is a poor neighborhood just exactly in the midst of the city. This is, of course, quite fortunate for the 805 families living in the community – they can easily earn a living by driving a motorcycle taxi or sell goods on the market.

In his speech in May 2003 Prime Minister Hun Sen names four urban neighborhoods that are to be the first ones to be upgraded. Dey Krahorm is mentioned. Posters are put up in the neighborhood, informing the residents and a decree from the Council of Ministers certifies it. Ironically, most Dey Krahorm does not actually need it, because they already own the land, they live on. But nevertheless, a social land concession is a good thing to have.

And then…things take an unfortunate turn.

In 2005 suddenly a company makes its entrance in the lives of the people of Dey Krahorm. Construction company 7NG has now – without the knowledge or consent of the residents – made a deal with 35 village representatives to swap the land of Dey Krahorm for a strip of land 20 kilometers outside of the city.

Of course, one cannot sell what one does not own, so the agreement with the company is illegal and invalid. The residents are entitled, not only to remain on their land, but to have it upgraded. The Prime Minister promised them this.

There are absolutely no legal grounds to argue otherwise. None.

But then the intimidation begins.

Now the residents of Dey Krahorm experience theft, sudden fires, destruction of their property frequently. Over the next four years, this practice increases to the point where many of the villagers give up, take the meager compensation offered to them and leave. The ones that doesn´t? They get charged with trumped up charges and has to go to court so frequently, they cannot do their everyday job. They get threatened. They get beat up.

And then one day:

The excavators come.

Early in the morning January 24, 2009, the villagers are awakened by the sounds of their houses being torn down. An army of military police, police officers and company workers have sealed off the area and are aggressively beating down everyone, who steps in their way.

There is one man, who with his palms together raised in the air begs for the chance to go inside his own house and salvage a few of his belongings, while the excavator driver ignores him and carries on. A few moments later, a police officer comes with a fire extinguisher and sprays the praying man straight in his face to get him to move away.

One woman stands on top of the rubble trying to stop the excavator when she loses her balance and falls down under it. Shocked bystanders believe they just saw her die until they see her crying daughter carry her out and get her to a hospital.

In a few hours, the neighborhood is nothing but rubble. Half an hour later, then-Deputy Governor Mann Chouen holds a press conference on the site. Undistracted by the scenery behind him, and of what just happened, he congratulates the police and company workers on the operation.

Meanwhile the families from Dey Krahorm are on their way to the relocation site 20 kilometers from the city, a place they clearly and lawfully refused to move to. And no wonder. Everything out there is inadequate. In-adequate schools for the children, in-adequate hospitals too far from the residents, in-adequate sanitation, water, food…and for jobs? Well, there is a factory out there. It´s owned by the company that took their land.

So – I was in Phnom Penh to see what had happened Dey Krahorm since that day in 2009.

Nothing, really. A lot of the families had gotten a lot more complicated stories to tell now, but very few of them had gotten any better. Many were sick. Many were jobless. All were poor.

And the lucrative land of Dey Krahorm itself? There is a 7NG office there now, but I was not allowed to go in. Instead, I went up to say hello to the Minister and spokesperson for the Cambodian Government to ask him about the Dey Krahorm case. I asked him, why the Cambodian government has not kept their promise about upgrading the communities they had given social land concessions.

You already know what he answered.

“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.” Wish-wash.

But Mann Chouen – the then-Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh, who held the press conference on the rubble…he received a medal for his work on Dey Krahorm.


Land grabbing is the biggest problem in Cambodia today. It affects about one million people every year. According to the Cambodian Land Law of 2001, people who have been living on a strip of land for five years have the right to ownership. It also states that if land is to be used for other purposes, the residents are entitled to a “fair” compensation. A common land grabbing scenario is selling a piece of land to a foreign company, who then removes the residents living there – like they did with the people of Dey Krahorm. In 2011, the Cambodian Government sold 800,000 hectare of land to foreign companies – in 2010, this number was 200,000 hectare.

Anya Palm
Freelance journalist based in Bangkok 

A Hero with dirty hands by Anya Palm

Friday was the first time for many Thais to hear Yingluck Shinawatra speak in public. The lady, who by the looks of all polls, is going to be Thailand’s Prime Minister by Sunday, has never really spoken to followers before, and the audience for Friday’s speech came to see “what kind of person she is”, as one of the redclad supporters explained.

In a stadium in the outskirts of Bangkok on Friday, she yelled her message in a high pitched and indignate voice, and the response from the crowd was ear deafening. “PUEA THAI! PUEA THAI!”

The fact that she has had to do absolutely nothing – not even speak to her voters – says more about the Thai political situation than anything else.

In Thailand, a young woman running for Prime Minister would have exactly those two things against her. In a country where age equals experience, obviously a young candidate has much to prove. And she is going to be the first female Prime Minister Thailand has ever had. In a patriarchic society like Thailand that would constitute as a major concern. Logically, Yingluck Shinawatra would have spent every waking minute of her campaign assuring that those two things are not issues.

She didn’t and she didn’t have to. Because Yingluck Shinawatra is not running for PM in Thailand; Her big brother is.

Thaksin Shinawatra was couped from power in 2006. Having been in office for five years, and winning four elections in a row – a record in Thailand – the former “CEO” of Thailand has spend the years since then falling out with the elite, the monarchy and the army, and thus, today, he is a fugitive with an arrest order hanging over his head, if he ever returns.

That is, however, not as unfortunate as it sounds. Thaksin’s opposition to the power elite and their continued attempts to keep him out of politics, spotlights his agenda of breaking up the tight grip those three groups – army, rich elite and monarchy – has on the Thai democracy.

They run the country with little attention to the voice of the voters and the everyday problems, the citizens of Thailand struggle with. They run the country, not because they are elected to, but because with their good education, high ranks and superior social statuses, they are naturally entitled to. It is nobody’s place to tell them differently, and particularly it is not common people’s place, be it in vote form or otherwise. Despite the obstruction of rights and equality for the people in this construction, this is not an uncommon view for Thai people, particularly in the older generation.

In that respect, Thaksin Shinawatra stands for democracy in a Western definition – his leadership will be one, where the voice of the people will be heard and where politics to better the situation for the citizens of Thailand will be a priority. He has proven that already, and for that, he has almost endless support. There is just one catch:

He is a complete crook. Voting for Little Sis will also be voting for a man, who has much focus on making himself richer in such a scale that it cannot be defended in any way.

While he was Prime Minister, he made numerous state funded contributions to companies owned by friends and family, several of his relatives were elevated in rank, and the premiership had a direct positive effect on Thaksin Shinawatra’s personal bank account.

Voting for a sincere, democratic candidate, whose sole interest is to be as good a Prime Minister as he or she can be, is not an option in Thailand.

So really, while celebrating Yingluck’s victory, Thai people need to start asking themselves:

How big of a crook is Thaksin Shinawatra really? Because the way the dice landed, Thai democracy is in large part dependant on the answer.


Anya Palm,
freelance journalist based in Bangkok, NIAS associate


A visit to Malaysia’s only (legal) casino

Malaysia’s only casino, Casino de Genting at Genting Highlands Resort, is for high rollers. For the filthy rich and for the middle men. And for those with dirty money that needs washing.

By Anya Palm 

The big room is less glitzy than in Hollywood movies. The lighting is too bright and the colors too dim and dusty. But that’s all. Other than that – the casino is exactly like in the movies. Piles and piles of chips in front of eager players of all ages. Slots. Slick dealers with empty faces and silk ties. Neon lights. Monotone little melodies from the many machines placed in rooms with names like “Monte Carlo”, “Fortune Corner” and – yes- “Hollywood.”

The Genting Highland Resort Casino in Malaysia is the only casino in the country, seeing as gambling is illegal, save for this one spot.

Tourists come here and the resort has other attractions too. But that’s not interesting. Because regular tourists are not admitted through the doors behind the metal detector and the two armed guards. Into the Silver Lounge where membership card and a certain amount of cash is required. THIS is where money is laundered.

An elderly man sits at one of the hundreds of tables in the lounge. In front of him is a massive amount of yellow chips – 80? 100? 200? Stacked in nice piles, each orderly next to each other.

The Genting Resort Union President, Robert Henry, is present. Besides his job as a union leader, he also works as a guard in the casino. “Each yellow chip is worth 5,000 dollars,” he whispers, as he passes the man with the piles. Dollars.

Later, he reveals that it is not uncommon for the Silver Card Members to come here and gamble for well over a million dollars. And then – like an afterthought – that some of it is money laundering.

– How else would you explain suddenly having millions more than yesterday? “I went to the casino and won.” the president explains. But of course, this is hush. And that is of course just a non waterproof suspicion, he has. He does not ask.

And without knowing it, Henry just made a very excellent point. Because money laundering – or corruption for that matter – is like smoke. Once the money hit the casino, the origin is obvious and hidden at the same time. The union president tells of one client, a Cambodian man that comes every three days with more than a million dollars to gamble for. He always likes to live in a suite and he pays good tips. Who gets a million dollars every third day? In Cambodia? What is this man’s job? Obviously, there is no answer.

In Malaysia corruption cannot be categorized as an overshadowing problem. Malaysia ranks as number 47 out of 180 over Transparency International’s corruption index and thus is in the better end than many of her neighbors. But the thing is that corruption cannot be defined, not in any way that makes sense. It is not excluded to businessmen and shady realty deals or crooked politicians. It is your friendly policeman in the little local station, your children’s math teacher, your mom when you needed vaccine as a child, you. It is a part of the Malaysian culture, which is not easily categorized – nor altered.

Corruption has always been there and we all know it is bad – why talk about it now?

Because of what happened just outside the capital in Malaysia this June:

The Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium collapsed.

The Stadium was built in 2008 and it cost a good billion dollars to build. It holds 50,000 spectators when sold out and sold out it was on Wednesday June 3, when the Public Institute of Higher Learning Games was to be held here. The night before, the gargantuan concrete rooftop collapsed and crashed down over the seats, leaving no doubt that had this happened just 12 hours later, thousands of lives would have been lost.

On the day of the now cancelled event, Malaysia was very quiet. Those, who had their tickets still, got their money back.But guess which money did NOT come back? The dollars that were supposed to go to building a decent stadium. The money, that may or may not have been spend, not on good building materials and competent construction workers and architects, but on chips. Possibly yellow.

So why does Malaysia rank so low on the corruption index, when it is so painstakenly clearly infiltrating this country? And why is there a legal casino in a country that forbids gambling? Who are these people that can gamble for millions and millions on a regular basis? Obviously, the public deserves an answer.

Cambodia’s wheel of history rolls on

Alexandra KentSenior ResearcherNIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

Thirty years after the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, a ‘hybrid’ war crimes tribunal has finally begun. A mixed team of Cambodian and foreign lawyers have just kicked into motion with the trial of ‘Duch’, the first of five suspects to be tried. The others are Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan, Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sary and Nuon Chea.

Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, was responsible for the renowned Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. The prison was a converted high school, rehashed into one of the most gruesome torture centres imaginable. An estimated 20,000 people were incarcerated there and tortured mercilessly before being summarily executed at the nearby killing fields of Choeung Ek as enemies of the revolution. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 they released the 7 captives who, against all odds, had survived and they converted the prison into a symbol of the Khmer Rouge insanity that they were offering to redress. Duch disappeared into the countryside but was rediscovered by Western journalists in 1998. By this time he had converted to Christianity, perhaps in the hope of escaping the karmic consequences of his deeds and finding forgiveness and salvation.

So who really cares about these trials and their outcome? The United Nations, China, the USA are thought by many to have blood on their hands for having supported or turned a blind eye to what was going on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Yet the international community is now urging that the whole story be closed, with investigations focusing on the five scapegoats now held in custody. This irony aside, many Cambodians do hope that the trials will bring to light ‘the truth’ about what happened and about why and how Khmer could so savagely brutalize their own people. But few ordinary Cambodians believe that the country’s endemically corrupt judiciary will be able to carry out a fair and neutral trial, regardless of international presence. Many see the lawyers as taking advantage of an opportunity to bleed the arteries that are bringing money into the country to support the trials – ordinary people wonder how many pockets will be lined.

Cambodia’s swelling younger generation was not even born when the Khmer Rouge were ravaging their country. Some find it hard to believe the stories their parents tell of having to eat scavenged grubs, of old people being beaten by indoctrinated teenage cadres, of the complete breakdown of institutions and communities. Some think it would make far more sense to put all the tribunal money into dealing with today’s crimes – moped thefts, land-grabbing by the elite, the forced removal of the poor from urban slums so that private enterprise can use their land.

But even if the trials seem bizarre and anachronistic, is it permissible to allow crimes against humanity – the deaths of a quarter of Cambodia’s population – to pass unpunished? What signals would this give to perpetrators of today’s crimes in Cambodia? The trials may never see justice meted out where it’s properly due, but the process of conducting them may at least cast a spotlight onto the workings both of Cambodia’s current judiciary and the terrifying “wheel of history” that rolled over the country in the 1970s.

Corruption control and remedies against administrative acts: Meritocratic civil service and reforms of administrative law

Karin Buhmann Associate Professor of legal science at the Institute of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen (


This article gives an overview of law and governance in China focussing on the tradition of meritocratic governance which is having a renaissance with law-based recruitment reforms in the legal sector and parts of the public administration, as well as reforms of administrative law undertaken since 1989 which provide Chinese citizens with increased remedies against official abuse of power.

The tradition – a source and a constraint

It is well known that gunpowder, porcelain and (possibly thanks to Marco Polo) maybe even such a West-ish dish as pasta originate from China. It is less well-known that China has a more than two thousand year old legal system and a tradition of governance based on ‘good men’, set up to control against corruption and other forms of official abuse of power. Understanding of this system may make it easier to appreciate China’s course of reform and that human rights and rule of law may not be as foreign to China as the violations taking place during the second half of the 20th century, particularly during the legal nihilism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the 1989 Tienanmen events may lead us to think. Even though Chinese leaders and academics are often reluctant to talk about China’s philophical and normative past based i.a. on the teachings of Confucius and applied during the imperial dynasties, as external observers we may do well to remind ourselves that China has a rich cultural, philosophical and even legal tradition. The latter comprised, i.a., a set of Codes dealing with criminal, administrative and civil law. Originating even before but refined during the Tang dynasty (618-907) when the Nordic countries were still in the late Iron Age, this code became a model for laws of later dynasties until the latter years of the final one, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) when China set on a course of modernising its legal system based on Japan’s modern law which was itself inspired by the German and French legal systems of the late 19th century.

The meritocratic governance system was intended to ensure that the vast country which China was already then was ruled by bright and uncorrupt civil servants. Civil servants were trained in academies where they studied the teachings of Confucius. These teachings included a strong focus on morals according to which the ruler and his bureaucracy must apply their power to the benefit of all and not to that of themselves. As often observed in contemporary societies, corruption and other forms of official abuse of power almost invariably lead to violations of the population’s enjoyment of rights that we today consider human rights. Law-based administrative and criminal codes ensured that civil servants were not to be appointed to positions in provinces where they had personal or other interests, and that those who did not adhere to the Confucian moral code where punished. Punishments ranged from mere demotions to banishment to far-away provinces. Conversely, the system allowed those who observed the Confucian and legal codes and demonstrated the Confucian version of ‘good governance’ were promoted.

In principle, the academies and the civil service were open to all (males only, though), simply based on their merits. In practice, however, just like studies prove to be the case in many contemporary societies, the son of the learned man stood a better chance of acceptance into the academy, and thus of grounding a career as a civil servant, than the son of peasant. Entry to the civil service was based on exams to demonstrate the knowledge of the candidate.

A special corps of travelling civil servants (‘the censorate’) was charged with supervision of the civil service. The censors investigated on their own and were allowed to receive and handle complaints of abuse of power and bad governance.

Governance in China was based on this meritocratic system since its establishment 2500 years ago until the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911. Although it was not perfect and sometimes not observed, it demonstrates that tendencies to favour particular political allegiances and towards abuse of official power, tendencies that outside observers often associate with contemporary China, are not necessarily the Chinese way. Indeed, in later years reforms have been introduced to ease requirements of membership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for many government posts as well as in the legal system. Entry exams and educational requirements have been introduced for example for judges and prosecutors.

Perhaps even more of a surprising to many, the Chinese meritocratic system may have inspired meritocratic practices in Europe. The German legal and social scientist Max Weber (1864-1920) studied the Chinese system during the latter years of the final imperial dynastic times. He was impressed by the system and recommended its use. Several centuries prior to Weber, Christian missionaries had noted the system which built on a way of thinking which was alien to Europe prior to the human rights and democracy inspired movements of the late 18th century and onwards.

China’s legal and normative tradition is not only a picture of beauty. The Confucian moral codes were highly status based in other ways, and parallel with the Confucian governance codes existed a legal tradition, ‘The Legalist School’, which held that power was for the use of the ruler to preserve his position, and that severe punishments was the way to make individuals behave, civil servants as well as ordinary subjects.

Post-1989 Law Reforms

It may seem a paradox that a country known by many as one which during the Cultural Revolution abolished almost all laws and legal institutions and in which severe human rights violations have been reported by various sources should be one of a meritocratic and legal tradition of significance today. Even so, there are signs that reforms undertaken in later years are not only inspired by other legal systems but also build on the tradition which was interrupted with the fall of the Qing dynasties in 1911. In addition to the reintroduction of meritocratic entry exams, reforms since 1989 of the administrative system and particularly the laws governing its procedures show features that may not only be inspired by other countries but also build on China’s own tradition.

China lacks an actual administrative code. However, six statutes promulgated since 1989 have supplemented basic guarantees in the Civil Code and considerably strengthened citizens’, companies’ and organisations’ legal certainty and rights to administrative due process in a number of areas. Procedural rules have been introduced to govern the issuance of administrative licences (e.g. permits to set up an import business) or penalties (such a fines or the revocation of a licence). Rules to prevent and punish corruption and other forms of abuse of power form a significant portion of the statutes. Compensation paid by the state is provided for for a number of types of administrative acts violating the law. A statute on supervision of administrative organs’ handling of their tasks and power supplements supervisory mechanisms found within the Party system. Perhaps as a legacy of the Legalis
t school’s ideas on deterrence through threats of punishment, provisions for punishment of civil servants who abuse their power or otherwise break the law are about as numerous as those establishing procedures for proper handling of the administration’s tasks.

While both constraints on the use of administrative detention and rights to compensation for certain form of abuse of administrative power remain insufficient from a human rights point of view, the new rules provide for rights to make complaints about administrative decisions on a number of grounds including illegality and use of powers for other purposes than those for which they were granted. The system provides for administrative reconsideration as well as judicial review of concrete administrative acts. The rights to complain are not just granted in formality, but actually used.

The Chinese statutes on administrative law and its procedures do not apply human rights terminology. In this, however, it is like the administrative law of most other countries.

Other recent law reforms are significant too in terms of human rights: The Legislation Law, promulgated in 2000, allows for public consultations on bills for new laws. The substance of the Labour Contract Law which took effect on 1 January this year was influenced by comments from individuals and corporate organisations, including the European and American Chambers of Commerce. As further described in this blog’s article by Jonas Grimheden, laws have introduced merit requirements and entry exams for the legal profession. China’a entry to the WTO which resulted in a number of reforms to increase transparency of commercially relevant law and to strengthen legal remedies for administrative acts pertaining to companies has played a part too, and may have contributed to a greater awareness of the legal system as an institution to deal with complaints. Unintended but not insignificant, the impact of China’s WTO membership may be quite considerable in terms of spill-over on institutions benefiting human rights and the rule of law.


There are indications that China is experiencing a return to certain values of its tradition, particularly certain Confucian ideas. Much of Confucianism was devoted to ensuring a society based on harmonious relations. Part of that harmony in society of 2500 years ago was brought about by people having sufficient food, shelter and security. In this too, pre-modern China did not differ from the needs or ideals of many other pre-modern societies. Other parts of that harmony was brought about, and indeed preserved, by having a government of the best and least corrupt minds to ensure, precisely, that food and other resources were not diverted to the coffers of greedy officials.

President Hu has announced a policy of creating a harmonious society. Part of this policy is about decreasing the considerable differences in access to food, shelter, education and health services between urban and rural areas, and between Eastern and Western China. While access to food, shelter, education and health services does not automatically render a country human rights compliant, just like economic growth does not automatically lead to human rights, they are nevertheless significant elements in the entire range of human rights. When assessing China critically, external observers may do well to remind ourselves that other large countries (including in the West, the United States) also employ the death penalty, and that China’s reforms over the past 30 years have had not only to address civil and political rights but also severe poverty, itself recognised as a violation of human rights, for a large proportion of the population.

It may not be realistic to expect that a country with a rich cultural, legal and governance tradition dating back more than 2500 years which moreover represents one fifth of the world’s population today should modernise and reform exactly the way countries elsewhere have done. Given its point of departure at the on-set of reforms 30 years ago, even if China did introduce reforms of law and governance like Europe, we should not in fairness expect to see things at current Europe levels until China has had as many years to implement reforms – which means allowing 200 years, give or take … In fact and as also demonstrated by other articles available on this thematic blog, China seems to be modernising and reforming in its own way and much faster, drawing on a selection of sources of influence from the international society, specific other countries, and its own traditions.