Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Building Up and Tearing Down? Educating Workers on the Labor Law

Just today, I got my hands on a workers' pocket guide to the Labor Contract Law, China's new labor law that's been hailed as (or hoped to be) a panacea for many of China's labor problems, as well as for the recent, worrisome, social unrest and growing economic inequality. I had lots of other materials to choose from, some far more erudite and enlightening no doubt, but this one had diagrams, cartoons, and middle-school-level Chinese, so naturally I started with it.

It's a small, passport-sized book, limited to a few dozen pages, but it does an excellent job of introducing the law to any worker who's lucky enough to receive a copy. The law's taught in a Q & A format, with the questions pertaining to real-life problems at the beginning of each chapter: “Little Ming's factory didn't have money to pay her this month, so they gave her a box of pants off the assembly line and told her to go sell them on the street in order to get her monthly wage.  Is this legal or not?  Answer: No. It is not.”

I learned quite a bit, but wouldn't have thought it worth mentioning here until I got to the last chapter, which has the laconic title, “Life.” There's no labor law talk here, but simply a chapter that seeks to help the readers –most likely “peasant” migrant workers―to adjust to life in China's cities. “Life” is kind of a cross between the State Department Travel Warnings and Miss Manners, and it had me laughing on the subway (something it strictly forbids).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Dignity, Always Dignity?" -- Wen Jia Bao Does His Own Singing in the Reign

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, meet Wen Jia Bao, “Everything we do we do to ensure that the people live a happier life with more dignity.”


"Grandpa Wen," as he is (mostly) affectionately named, said this in his "state of the nation" address at the opening session of the National People's Congress, a three thousand member assembly which has no problems with super-majorities.  That little word, "dignity," piqued quite a bit of interest. 

My girlfriend mentioned his dignity-dropping immediately, claiming that his use of "that word, in this situation," was something big.  At first, I thought she'd just mentioned it since it's been a recurring theme of mine over the past year.  I feel strongly that China's going to have to produce a robust theory of an "Eastern" conception of dignity if it wants to continue claiming that many of the rights mentioned in the above-cited UDHR are really just Western cultural norms masquerading as universal rights. But she could've cared less about what I said.  She meant that this was actually important.

Later that week, Wen, doing his best Obama impersonation, engaged Chinese netizens in an internet chat, and answered one blogger's question, "...[W]hat does it mean that people need to live with more dignity?"  

[Side note: I really do feel that he is impersonating Obama.  As hard as the Western press was on Obama for not taking a tougher stance with China in his last visit, Obama's internet town hall meeting in Shanghai had a dramatic effect on many of the people here.  Chinese leaders are rarely willing to engage private citizens directly, especially broadcast in real time.  Since Obama's speech, I don't think I'm wrong in noticing an uptick in Wen's "regular guy" appearances, this internet chat being just one example.]

Back to the question. Here's Wen's response. 

"...My speech was only 800 characters, but those two words ["dig" "nity"] have elicited the attention of the whole country.  I've seen quite a lot of opinions on it.  When I said I 'want all people to live with more dignity,' I meant mainly three aspects: first, every citizen should enjoy the freedom and rights they are entitled to under the constitution and the law. Regardless of who it is, in the eyes of the law, everyone should enjoy equality. Second, the ultimate goal of Chinese development is to satisfy the increasing material demands of the people, there is no [goal] other than this. Third, society’s complete development must be based on people’s individual development. We want to give people freedom and complete development to create profitable conditions, let their wisdom and skills compete to burst forth. That was what I meant by dignity."  

If you haven't lived over here, it's hard to exaggerate the amount of scrutiny the words of high-ranking officials undergo, especially those made in formal situations.  More than that, it's even harder to exaggerate the social, political, even legal effects that can spring from such statements.  Of course, since I have to play my own devil's advocate here, it's also difficult to exaggerate the amount of beautiful, idealistic language that fills the Chinese constitution.  (Or, I should say,"has filled, fills, was redacted and refilled, and will fill.")

It's been a tough last year: tough for US-China relations, labor relations, China-Google-internet-at-large relations, minority relations, etc.  I was just reflecting on my last few entries, and I realized that they've all smacked of a growing pessimism, or at least frustration, with things here in China.  There's a reason for that, I have become a bit more pessimistic in this past year.  But it's not just me, I'd like to believe that I'm channeling a collective consciousness of my Chinese friends and colleagues, many of whom go to sleep with these troubled relations on their minds. 

I think that's why Wen's words "elicited the attention of the whole country."  While a lot of this "attention" was sarcastic, disillusioned, and even downright mean, I still saw something in my girlfriend's eyes that I haven't seen for a while: hope.  You don't forget hope when you see it in someone's eyes.  You might mistake it for love, but then you realize that you haven't done anything to deserve it that day.  

Thanks Wen. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chinese Justice, The Internet, and Chinese Internet Justice

If it were possible to summarize my overarching purpose in coming to China, I suppose it might be this: to understand the Chinese sense of justice.  This of course, is impossible, and one of those silly pursuits I should have abandoned in my youth.  But like McDonald's double cheeseburgers, bad television, and trying to make people like you, there are just some silly pursuits that never leave you; nor, perhaps, on second thought, should they.

Since I have yet to figure out what Chinese justice is, any time I try to explain it to someone else, I just end up telling stories.  Until I read the article on "human flesh searches" linked below, "justice" boiled down to two recent news stories -- one that made you laugh, and one that terrified.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Moral Dilemmas Solved While You Wait, Subway Art in Shanghai

A few weeks ago I was waiting for my subway transfer and was struck by the art that lay across the tracks. Subway ads are normally filled with carefully manicured models or slick public service messages about forming lines, being polite to others, and other "civilizing" behavior.  You can imagine my surprise then, when I saw the two pictures posted here staring me in the face.  They're abrasive, messy, and dark, with cryptic messages to match their aesthetic: impassioned admonitions to avoid giving money to child beggars, an alarming and increasing phenomenon on the Shanghai subways.  I'll do my best to translate this Guggenheimaganda.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Debating Rules and Standards with Cab Drivers

Law school classes are filled with heavy, pedantic concepts, but even more than that, they're overflowing with explanatory analogies and metaphors describing those concepts. ("Law is a is a tool.. no, is a toolbox.") Perhaps it's just the nature of law, or of lawyers, to take a concept and explain it in five different ways. I think the variety stems -- in large part -- from the awareness that the "successful" analogy (in the meme sense of the word) carries a lot of interpretive power, and can result in the liberal or conservative use of a particular law or set of laws.  Whatever the reason, legal concepts, like hailstones, pick up layers of understood meaning as they descend through the troubled minds of legal thinkers and into the (unfortunately?) not-so-troubled minds of the public.

Some analogies do work, though. One analogy that has always made sense to me has been to think of the differences between legal rules and legal standards as stop signs and yield signs. This connection isn't metaphorical -- the commands to "stop" and "yield," are, in fact, respectively, a real legal rule and a real legal standard.  Here in Shanghai,  I'm reminded of how important those two concepts are every time I cross the street.


More on that later.  What I really want to talk about today is red right turns.

While out running a few weeks ago, I was nearly hit by a taxi driver who ignored me and the ten other people walking with me in the crosswalk.  We were huddled together in the traditional, flounder-like, strength-in-numbers phalanx -- one of us might not make it across, but at least most would.  As the cab passed by us, narrowly missing our group's outliers, my emotions got the better of me and I slapped the trunk.  No damage was done to the car (or my hand), but it was enough to get him to stop, get out, and challenge me to a heated, extemporaneous battle of rhetoric and wit.  He spoke on a sort of "Madlibs for Adults" script.

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