Monday, June 11, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Rules, What Rules?

I was witness to something last week that was shocking. And its my opinion that this incident, and behavior like it, is becoming more typical of China's elite.

Living in Shanghai, a bustling city of around 20 million, I am subject to witnessing a lot of different types of behavior. One type of behavior will be the subject of today's blog, my colleagues and I like to call it the "I'm above the law" syndrome. A typical description of this behavior might be when a member of China's new elite, a government official or wealthy business person, parks his new Porshe or BMW or Audi A6 in a "No Parking Zone". The problem with this is that there are police officers on every street corner in Shanghai directing traffic and the illegally parked car is quick to be ticketed. Should the owner or driver be in the immediate area when this is occurring a yelling match is often quick to follow. Emotions often run very high in big urban centers.

As I walk around this city on my weekends, doing a lot of street photography, I constantly see car owners yelling at police men. In many cases the car owners simply don't like being told what to do, they feel that because they drive a nice car, or any car at all, that they are above the law and can essentially do what they want. This is often the same for traffic laws as well. In all my travels in all the world I have never witnessed car owners (and drivers) yelling red-faced at traffic police officers. It's a new phenomenon in China, and it's my opinion that it's happening more often in China's larger cities where wealth flourishes.

Now, I frequently travel from Shanghai to Hong Kong. I do this for a variety of reasons from picking up camera gear to re-connecting with friends that I made when I was living there in 2002/2003. Because of my frequent visits to Hong Kong I am eligible for a Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) Frequent Visitors (FV) Card. It's nothing special, if you visit more than 3 times a year you are eligible and it essentially means that you don't have to wait in the passport check / immigration lines. It's a great service and its something it really makes my travel much much easier. I was in HKIA last Friday June 8th at 5pm. After checking in I was moving to the immigration section or passport checking area to depart Hong Kong. Upon entering the passport checking area I notice that the regular immigration line up was huge, luckily I reached for my HKIA FV Card and headed up to the desk. Just as I was about to enter the line I was gently nudged aside by 4 Chinese passport holders.

They seemed in a rush so I slowed my step and let them enter the line ahead of me. Things stayed calm until the attendant who administers the Frequent Visitor line determined that none of these Chinese folks had FV Cards. When the attendant asked the four Chinese passport holders to re-join the regular line for exiting Hong Kong the trouble started.

The HKIA attendant began to ask, in Mandarin, a series of questions very calmly. "Do you have a Frequent Visitors Card?" "Are you late for your flight?" "Why are you in such a rush?" It seemed like a very rational set of questions for a group of people who seemed most determined to jump the line.

The Chinese passport holders than began to ignore the HKIA attendant and as he continued to ask questions and try to demand answer the Chinese folks just snickered amongst themselves and one man was actually laughing. The only woman of the group actually raised her hand, as if to wave him off and get him to stop with the questions. This group of Chinese passport holders clearly didn't have the HKIA FV Card, and they didn't seem to care. It became obvious that they felt they had the complete right to jump the line.

After a few minutes the HKIA attendant gave up, and the Chinese passport holders jumped the line and passed through with nothing but a few dirty looks from the people in the regular line. I stood back in awe, what had I just been a witness to?

A group of four Chinese passport holders, dressed in business attire, had brought their "I'm above the law" attitude to the HKIA. In effect this attitude, which is all too common in China had just been exported to Hong Kong. I was disappointed. I feel its one thing for people to behave like that in their own country, but to export their air of superiority to a place like Hong Kong, which has a long and proud tradition of the Rule of Law, just didn't seem right.

Now the rule of law is weak in China and most people are aware of this. The law doesn't really protect human rights or property rights or really anything that matters. While the local governments have been quick to build massive court houses and legal administrative buildings, their actual capability to solve problems or administer law has been lacking. Now I agree that China's development has been the most rapid in human history and that when the economy grows this fast it's often the law that is left playing catch up, but what is troubling isn't that the courts are weak, it's that some people (mainly new elite) believe that the law doesn't apply to them or that they can throw money on the problem and it will go away.

A lot of you might think that I am making too much of this small incident at an airport, and perhaps I am. But if I am its because I am worried of an ever greater problem that I see just below the surface of incidents like this. I see a massive country producing wealth like there is no tomorrow. I see a country without any evidence of the Rule of Law. I see a small minority of the country who happen to be either politically connected or wealthy doing essentially what they want when they want and taking little or no regard for people around them. I see a country with a growing feeling of nationalism and an air of superiority that seems to be unchecked. This scares me.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

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Ryan Pyle