Laws vs. Rituals

The Rule by Law in China: Focus on Simplicity

Chinese leaders generally are skillful at playing roles of the patriarch and the matriarch: One leader in the organization often plays the role of a strict patriarch who enforces all the corporate regulations and orders; some other leader plays the role of a gentle matriarch who influences the employees through education. The head of a company typically plays the role of the matriarch to make the company full of affection and care, while the second highest-ranking official plays the role of the law enforcement official who carries out supervision to see if there is any non-compliance, and, when necessary, punishes the ―wrongdoer.‖ After the employee is cornered by the ―tyrannical‖ second highest-ranking official, the head will come to comfort him/her so that he/she will become thankful and more willing to work. But such an arrangement also comes with risks, as the head may become ceremonial if he/she is always kind to the employees and the second highest-ranking official always takes punitive measures to them: The employees all know that the former is a nice guy while the latter is the one who actually dictates their career development in the company. Gradually, the second highest-ranking official will become the de-facto power holder in the organization. We may say, therefore, that the best method is to have

―laws‖ play the role of the ―bad guy‖ and to specify all the penalties beforehand.

Wise Chinese leaders indeed are fully aware of how important it is to properly use laws, and everyone, including him/herself, needs to obey the laws. To assure that laws are obeyed throughout the organization, it is necessary to first realize consistency – the head must take the lead in obeying them so as to make them respectable. And why is it advisable to be good at using laws? This is because all the people will submit willingly to the leader's management if he or she rewards or punishes them by law in an impartial and consistent manner. In reality, the rule of law did exist in Chinese history, only that the laws were not made on the basis of a democratic agreement. At times when the government was well governed, the emperor was not able to do whatever he wanted to. Instead, his administrative orders needed to be reviewed and discussed

by the high-rank officers for their consent. In the reign of Emperor Taizong(AD 626-649)of the

Tang Dynasty, Wei Zheng, a high-ranking government official known for daring to expressing opinions even if they might make the emperor unhappy, could even openly reject Emperor Taizong's orders for the purpose of review, since he has the right to do so according the laws of Tang Dynasty. That is why we said at the beginning of this paragraph that good Chinese leaders indeed are fully aware of how important it is to obey and properly use laws.

With regard to organizational system design in China, however, the focus is always on the simplicity of laws. Specifically, laws are implementable only if they are simple and clear and if the leaders set themselves good examples for obeying laws. Unfortunately, there is now a trend in China that there are a growing number of laws with increasing complexity. Laws, if cumbersome, generally cannot be implemented and end up working only in two aspects in China– for the government to clarify its position and for some politicians to find fault with other people. An excess of legal provisions, many of which are overly stringent or stiff, will end up turning almost everyone into a criminal. The ruler would take advantage of ―unsolved problems‖ of particular officials to constrain them. This would result in a scenario where righteous persons were constrained in every aspect while petty ones, or those who were good at getting close to and relying on dignitaries, became dominant. Fei Xiaotong also said that petty persons would become dominant once Chinese society is ruled under overly stringent laws.

There used to be a ―Last Day‖ phenomenon in China – the laws would become increasingly stringent as a regime was approaching its end, whereas they were very loose when the regime was in the prime of its life, but could be well implemented once they were made. For example, during the reigns of Emperors Wen (BC 180-157 ) and Jing (BC 157-141) of the Western Han Dynasty (BC 202-AD 8), a period of peace and prosperity, all the people, even including princes, would receive the same punishment for the same crime, which in turn led to clean politics and good order throughout the country. In contrast, at the end of Western Han Dynasty, everybody would be willing to become petty persons once they were prone to receive punishment as a result of cumbersome, rigorous laws. This was because only petty persons could lead a good life in this situation thanks to their ability to secure personal gains in a dishonest manner.

During the late Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), Liu Xiao, the general commander of the garrison of the capital appointed by politician and warlord Dong Zhuo, was angered by decadence and dissatisfactory education in society and, hence, conducted investigations on failure to observe filial piety, disloyalty to one's superior and lack of respect for one's elder brother among both officials and ordinary people. Anyone who had committed any of such wrongdoing would be beheaded and his/her property confiscated. It turned out that this cruelty caused great panic and a great many people took advantage of it by producing false evidence against each other. Consequently, the city of Chang'an, the then capital of China and now known as the city of Xi'an, became a world of horror full of wrongful convictions. When meeting on the street, even people who knew well about each other would do no more than taking a look at one another, without daring to say a word. Rituals in Chinese society were rooted in four essentials – filial piety, respect for one's elder brother, loyalty to one's monarch, and faith to one's familiar ties, but it was impossible to promote the four essentials through law enforcement. If persons who were disloyal to their monarch or failed to observe filial piety must be punished by law, then this law would become a bad law that was not only impossible to be implemented but would also cause the people to produce false evidence against each other. Consequently, the people would doubt each other and, hence, make trust disappear from society.

A good law is in itself very simple, but it should be perfectly obeyed at all levels, plus flexibility beyond the legal provisions. In the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911), inscribed on the tablet hanging in the county governor's office was not the typical ―Ming Jing Gao Xuan‖ (literally, ―Loftily hangs the bright mirror‖, which means that the official is honest and perspicacious in judging a case), but ―Tian Li Ren Qing Guo Fa‖ (literally, ―The principles of nature, human affection, national laws‖). Since both the principles of nature laws and social norms are placed before national laws, we can see that certain room beyond laws should be left for both of them. And this room should be defined by rituals.

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