Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Government Versus Government

When people talk about the inconsistency of the rule of law in China and the limits to good intentions in the drafting of regulations, this is the kind of thing they are talking about:
A hundred Chinese tombs more than 2,000 years old have been crushed or buried to make way for a housing project in Inner Mongolia province, state media reported.

The destruction, backed by the local government, continued even though the Helinge'er county site was one of the largest and best-preserved cultural heritage sites in China, the Beijing Youth Daily said.

Nearly 50 of the tombs were razed and more than 50 others were covered over by earth when construction equipment flattened the ground...

...The site in the north of China was once the cemetery of the former city of Tuchengzi and has a history dating back to the Warring States period in the latter part of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 BC).

In 2001, the Chinese government placed it on the list of important national sites to be preserved.

County authorities, however, were eager to turn the 300,000 square metre (3.2 million square feet) plot of land over to the Xiangyu Real Estate Development Company to cash in on the local housing boom.

They failed to conduct a required cultural heritage assessment, said the report, citing heritage experts and local government officials.

Their actions amounted to a violation of China's cultural relics protection law, but so far no one had been arrested.

Inner Mongolia cultural relics protection officials ordered a work stoppage on May 10, but construction crews had continued to destroy the tombs as the county government and police refused to stop the workers.

Officials from China's Cultural Relics Bureau rushed experts to the site in April after learning about the destruction and were trying to salvage as many of the tombs and their relics as possible, the report said.

The developer and its workers have reportedly been putting up resistance, warning the preservationists that they need to finish up their work fast or risk being run over by bulldozers.

Westerners often tend to think of the Chinese government in stereotypical terms - a strong, central authority that rigidly controls peoples' actions and is defied at great risk. But as this story illustrates, local authorities flouted the central government's laws with impunity. These and other similar incidents lead one to speculate on just how much control Hu Jintao's national government actually has over local power brokers. Sure, some of these modern warlords will get their comeuppance, eventually, but apparently "killing the chicken to frighten the monkey" only gets you so far these days.

Still, it's a positive sign that the "state media" reports on such stories. While this may be a case of the central government's attempting to manipulate public opinion, it still clearly shows that not all authority in China is legitimate. Nor, in the case of the central government, is it omnipotent.

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