A Kafkaesque System of Justice: The Plight of the Poor in China

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Monday April 13, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

When you live in an authoritarian state where corrupt courts reign supreme and judges are often feted by the wealthy, local magistrates, what chance does the little man have? In China local justice is rarely available so what happens? In the imperial past, the little man could petition the emperor if he felt he did not get justice locally. This practice has continued into the Communist era in China but now such petitioners are either beaten by thugs or placed in mental institutions. This follows a recent article in "China Newsweek" written by Sun Dongdong an associate professor of law. He declared them mentally ill. Is this the fault of the poor? And what are the yearly numbers of these petitioners?

The government says between 3 and 4 million come yearly; rights groups disagree and make that in the tens of millions. Whatever the case, a heck of a lot of people yearly come to Beijing to petition for justice; but few if any get justice so why do they come? The answer lies not in them, but in the Kafkaesque scenario created by an authoritarian state that lacks rule by law.

In a way Professor Sun can be seen as right; these people have mental problems if they expect justice. But the problem must be seen in the proper perspective. When one constantly suffers injustice and has no recourse, what choices are left? One could despair; one could commit suicide; one could say it is fate. Or one could seek some way to alleviate the pain inside, a way that might not bring justice but would at least alleviate the pain. Thus such people partake in the trials of petitioning.

That in effect is what the millions of petitioners in China are doing, seeking to alleviate the pain of injustice. Does that make them mentally ill? Not in my books. Such actions are about the only way left for those suffering with no recourse. It is Kafkaesque to be sure, but such Kafkaesque situations are often created by authoritarian states.

In comparison, Taiwan has rule by law and there are no petitioners to the imperial powers. Despite this, many in Taiwan ironically want to unify with China. Who then has the mental problem? Or perhaps do the unification proponents feel that they will be among the privileged elite who won't have to worry about justice? You decide.