The Rule of Law: Irony?

Author Gary Moreau

One of the byproducts of the yin and yang worldview that defines much of Chinese culture is the acute appreciation of irony. Which, in itself, is ironic given that much of the West thinks of China in quite the opposite terms.

Although China employs a political system tightly controlled by a single political party, restricts Internet access and media coverage, and manages day-to-day life through an enormous bureaucracy, it is the US that is often crippled by its preoccupation with rules and process. While Americans take great pride in “a job well done,” the Chinese are far more concerned with achieving the desired outcome.

One manifestation of this deductive/inductive difference in worldview is the difference our two cultures place on the rule of law. The rule of law, of course, is the foundation of the American way of life and business. And while that comes with many benefits, for every yin there is a yang. We tend, for example, to take decades to build infrastructure projects that the Chinese accomplish in months and our behaviors, in context, aren’t always practical or cost effective.

While the Chinese pass very general regulations and laws and leave it to local officials to interpret them in the most pragmatic way, we are slaves to the details of the law. We thrive on ‘loopholes’ and pay handsomely for lawyers and experts to find them.

Our legal system is the foundation of who we are as a country. But it is an identity that comes with a price tag. And, unfortunately, that price tag sometimes stands in the way of equal justice under the law. ‘Them that has’, you might say, can afford the best legal talent.

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My Chinese wife reminds of this excess on almost a daily basis when we set out on our daily walk in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. We live in a new subdivision of townhomes that have been tastefully and thoughtfully designed and set out. We are very happy here.

In front of each building unit, housing anywhere from 4-6 individual units, is a small turnout where guests and visitors can park. Each turnout is roughly 30-40 yards (25 meters) in length and will hold no more than 3 or 4 cars even with adroit parallel parking skills.

As you can see from the picture above, however, the turnouts that border a public street are equipped with both ‘One Way’ and ‘Stop’ signs, as is most certainly required by law, I’m sure. (The picture was taken with my iPhone and doesn’t do the depth perception justice. The turnout is tiny.)

My wife, however, finds this to be quite silly. “Of course,” she says, “The cars can only go one way and must yield upon exiting. And each car can easily see the other cars. This is all common sense. Who would think otherwise?” The signs, to her way of thinking, simply add unnecessary cost/taxes and contribute to general visual pollution. “It hurts my eyes,” she laments. (There are no real estate taxes in China.)

But this is the land where the law reigns supreme. The right to sue in a court of law is as fundamental as the right to vote. It is, in fact, a legal right you cannot give away even if you are willing to.

Yin and yang.

Irony.

When asked by people in the business world what I relished most about doing business in China I would inevitably say, “There are no lawyers.” When asked to name the most challenging aspect of doing business in China, however, I learned to say, “There are no lawyers. Specifically, there is very little case law.”

Case law, it turns out, is the stuff of predictability. And predictability is the essence of risk avoidance, which we, as Americans and American corporations, are increasingly consumed with.

There is nothing perfect about the American legal system. But there is nothing perfect about much of anything in life, with the possible exceptions of children and love.

It is, nonetheless, better than many of the alternatives. Yes, criminals may get off on technicalities. Frivolous lawsuits may harm corporations and citizens alike. And we may put road signs where they are clearly not needed. Hopefully, however, we can look at those signs and, well, smile.

Irony is okay. Even funny.

Unfortunately, it took the Chinese to help me learn that. And now, as we enter the Year of the Yin Fire Rooster, I share it with you. Do with it what you will.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com. Mr. Moreau is also available for public speaking and the provision of third-party written content on a wide variety of topics for your website or other communications material.