Aug 13, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Wealth, Privilege and Rule of Law in China

In the past I’ve touched on issues of economics and social equality in China, but a recent Slate article on the subject just seemed too good to pass up. Written on the controversy surrounding the bizarre practice of hiring body doubles to serve one’s jail time, Geoffrey Sant’s article stirred up quite a bit of buzz the last few days.  The article, and more broadly the issue of body doubles, certainly has a bit of a Weekly World News feel to it, yet it speaks to a real issue not only in China but nations around the world.  That issue is the importance of equality under the law in promoting national stability, particularly in times of global economic challenges.

Hardly issues unique to the 21st century, the privileges afforded by wealth and the ability of the wealthy to influence the law have always presented problems for governance.  Ties between economic and social inequality have fueled conflicts throughout our history, and this trend shows no signs of changing.  As the world continues to struggle with financial crises, governments around the globe are grappling with their own methods of addressing inequality under the law, or at least pursuing means to appease the broader public.

Within the People’s Republic, claims of abuses of power among economic and political elites have added fuel to existing discontent over inequality.  Given the party’s focus on societal “harmony” disregard for the legal system among elites bears the potential to cause real problems for the state in the years ahead.  Inequality is certainly an ongoing concern here in the United States, though in obviously different ways than in China.  This national problem is sure to be a centerpiece of this year’s political season in the US yet it is a subject we have never been particularly comfortable dealing with. Although the issue of body doubles is more than a bit sensational, it serves as a visceral example of the freedoms wealth can buy and the dangers growing inequality can create.   Perhaps these past years economic woes might bring the discussion of inequality back into mainstream discourse not only in China, but around the world.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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