Rules that aren’t Rules

Scholars and media pundits alike are quick to point out that Confucianism is enjoying a new resurgence of official veneration in China. This resurgence has many reasons: it fits the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) message of a continuous, five thousand year old China and it’s a basis for promoting China to the Western world that the West is already familiar with (or thinks it is familiar with). Most importantly, however, the views of Confucius blend well with primary concern of the current CCP leadership: maintaining social harmony (Wasserstrom 2010 China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know).

While the policies of earlier post-Mao political leaders emphasized economic development and redefined who the CCP stood for (Deng Xiaoping Theory and Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents), Hu Jintao’s focus on developing a harmonious society (和谐社会 hexie shehui) demonstrates just how important the maintenance of social order is to Beijing (and, by extension, to local leaders).

The signs of this emphasis on social order can be seen everywhere in Shanghai. Public security officers are ubiquitous, public signs ask citizens to “be cultured,” and at the entrance to every subway station is a metal detector through which passengers are directed to pass their bags for inspection. Rules and the enforcement of rules seem to be of central importance to the leaders of Shanghai.

“No Loitering”

Some of these rules aren’t really rules, however; or rather, they’re rules, but no one cares enough to enforce them. As has been pointed out before on this blog (see here and here), traffic in the city seems chaotic to a Western visitor, despite the presence of traffic lights that count down the last few seconds the light will be green, traffic cops, and public security officers everywhere. On the subway, it’s common to see people hopping turnstiles. If you’re carrying a bag when you enter, a subway official points towards the metal detector, but does absolutely nothing if you walk by without stopping. As people rush on and off buses, it’s common to see individuals dodging paying the fare, and the bus drivers don’t even blink.

Perhaps these “rules that aren’t rules” are really not that strange. As the state has realized that micromanaging every aspect of life in China is not an easy task, it has pulled back in some areas of management while re-entrenching its control more firmly in others. Yes, harmonious society is important, but who really poses a threat to the CCP’s hold on power: citizens in Shanghai who skip already lax security checks, or Uighur activists in Xinjiang who feel mistreated at the hands of the Han majority and the Communist Party?