Chatted with George the other day. George is my friend from New York who asked the wonderful question: Why everyone in China says “It is not impossible but difficult”.
When we talked about his recent relocation to Shanghai, we talked about the rules and regulations. George said: “I will try to follow all the rules anyway.”
This sounds so familiar. Li Hong talked about the same thing in the YLF dinner the other day. It was about the tax for foreigners. According to the regulation, any foreigners who stays in China for more than 183 days need to pay the local tax. Although it is not enforced, most foreigners tried very hard to follow, even the government official told them that it is OK to hold on and wait for some years. They just feel unsafe.
It is Sometimes Impossible to Follow
I smiled and said: “It is not always possible for you to follow all the rules.” Let me tell you why.
The first reason is, the legal system is a new system in China, and most of them were built in the last 20 – 30 years. This is also the period of fast-pace social and economic changes. There are conflicts between different rules, different laws, or regulations from different government departments. When I talked with friends from government, they are also trying very hard to solve this problem. They know that it is not consistent, but it takes time to solve this. The even bigger question to ask is, whether to publish a law that helps to address most of the problem while there are many potential conflict, or wait for 10 more years to solve all the problems and then publish a law, and at that time, the law may not be that useful, and there will be at least 10 years of absence of a law. That is a hard decision.
As in any fast changing system, only inconsistence can grow progress. That causes the problem that no one really can follow all rules, or laws.
So I said to George, although you try to follow laws in China, it is not always possible. It is just like the situation where you are standing at a cross road, and all the traffic lights are always red, while there is a “No Parking, or Standing-by” sign…. :-) You have to break a law, and it is your decision by common sense which one to break.
Having Law without Enforcing is a way to Manage
There are two types of scenarios for “Law without enforcing”.
Let me talk about a bad scenario. On a small street, there is a sign (or law) saying: “No Parking”. Let’s see how the person in charge can make money from this street. If there is no such a rule, the person in charge cannot fine anyone who parks there No money. No good. The opposite side is, when the No Parking law is enforced, and no one parks there at all, the person also cannot fine anyone. No money, no good. So finally, smart guy find out the trick is that only by having a law (by which they can fine), and it cannot be enforced (so he has someone to fine). That explains many places in China – the authority charges “protection fee” from vendor on the street, or people breaking the law, and that income was pretty stable.
OK. That is the bad scenario. Let me talk about the good scenario. China is not walking. It is running! In this case, any law may be out of date. Like the foreign exchange stuff, and other financial stuff, they have to have a strict guideline, so people cannot do many things, and at the same time, have some experiment (or special approval) to prove whether something works or not. This may not be the ideal case, but it is the way many people control risks.
In China, there are many cases like this. Hmm… I do feel confused (in China, who doesn’t) about what is the right direction. Enforcing a law is not always the best thing to do. You may be surprised to see I say so because it is politically incorrect. It is all about the quality of the law, the legitimation process, or the self-adjusting system for the laws. Without these, enforcing the existing law may cause a disaster – just like all reformers are all law-breakers. If the laws by Mao was enforced by violence, there will be no current progress of China. If we don’t give a chance for the current laws and regulations to be changed, or before they are changed, offers some flexibility, there will be no improvement.
P.S. To make the statement more politically correct, I would add: It is very hard to decide what kind of “breaking the law” is right or wrong. That is the role of law. So there must be some ways to improve the current status. That is all about the future of China.