China may yet succeed in building a kinder, gentler autocracy, but its recent legal reforms fall far short of democratic ideals.
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Article 105 of the Criminal Law
What it says: Criminalizes organizing, scheming or acting to subvert the political power of the state and overthrow the socialist system and incitement to subvert the political power of the state and overthrow the socialist system by spreading rumors, slander or other means.
What it does: Although Chinas constitution ostensibly guarantees the right to free speech and expression, statutes such as this one allow the state to suppress all criticism. Subversion charges are a common fate for Chinas activist bloggers and journalists.
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Hukou (Household Registration) System
What it says: Citizens are classified according to place of residence and socioeconomic status. Parents pass down their classification to their children, making hukou a form of social identity. Rural migrants are not allowed to relocate to cities unless they meet certain requirements, including a stable job or source of income and a stable place of residence.
What it does: The hukou system, excoriated by critics as Chinas apartheid, traces its origins to the fifth century, B.C. Reforms have lifted restrictions in recent years and enforcement has slackened off, but some provinces still have hukou on the books. Migrants who dont meet requirements have trouble obtaining public services such as healthcare or education for their children. Some officials defend the system, warning that too-rapid changes will lead to soaring crime and social chaos. But earlier this year, a government-sponsored report suggested that hukou be scrapped altogether to grant farmers the same status as urbanites.
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Measures for Managing Internet Information Systems, Issued by State Council Order No. 292
What it says: Prohibits certain content from Web sites, online bulletin boards, and chat rooms, including content that could harm the dignity and interests of the state or disturb social order. It also holds Internet service providers (ISPs) responsible for the content of their sites.
What it does: Vague provisions such as banning Web sites that disturb social order are a blank check for Internet censorship. China employs some 30,000 Internet police to keep tabs on its more than 250 million Web users, and holding ISPs responsible for content often leads to widespread self-censorship and the recording of subscribers online and telephone activity.
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Law on the Supervision by Standing Committees of the Peoples Congress at All Levels (2006), Article 3
What it says: It lays out the requirement of upholding leadership of the Communist Party.
What it does: Along with the constitution itself, this law enables one-party rule by mandating Communist Party dominance in Congress. Technically speaking, China has eight registered minor parties. But thanks to laws such as this, they have little to no influence on government.
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New Property Rights Law, 2007
What it says: A first, this law granted the right to property ownership by private persons.
What it does: Although one can own buildings and fixtures on land, the land itself still belongs to the state. The Chinese government also has a right to seize private property for a public purpose, a vague standard that is often exploited by commercial interests. The state must provide compensation for such seizures, but it usually offers a menial amount. Some analysts think that giving peasants in particular the right to sell their land would have tamped down rural unrest and helped millions find work and overcome poverty, but such a dramatic step was apparently too much for the Communist Party.
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Regulations on Religious Affairs (2005)
What it says: Allows religious organizations to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy, and collect donations, but requires them to register with the state. Article 3 sets forth that religion cant be used to disrupt public order or harm State or public interests.
What it does: Requiring groups to register with the state grants the government the right of refusal over religious organizations. The language in Article 3 is intentionally vague and is often used against groups the government doesnt approve, such as the Falun Gong. The government officially recognizes just five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.
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Trade Union Law of the Peoples Republic of China
What it says: The All-China Federation of Trade Unions shall be established as the unified national organization.
What it does: Limits workers to party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which rights groups say doesnt adequately protect workers rights. A new labor law passed in 2007 strengthened the role that the ACFTU could play in negotiating wages and benefits, but the union has traditionally favored management over workers and has not played an active role in defending such worker rights as overtime compensation and the ability to strike.
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State Security Law, Article 4
What it says: Lists specific acts that endanger state security, but are still vague enough to encourage arbitrary enforcement.
What it does: Activists and journalists are often prosecuted for Clause 1 plotting to subvert the government, dismember the State or overthrow the socialist system, or Clause 3stealing, secretly gathering, buying, or unlawfully providing State secrets. According to human rights researcher John Kamm, 99 percent of people tried for endangering state security are convicted.
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Consumer Protection Law, Chapter II, Articles 7 and 8
What it says: Companies are expected to maintain safety standards currently established by other companies, and businesses cant be punished for falling behind raised standards established by goods entering the market at a later time.
What it does: Safety standards and laws fluctuate with shifts in the market. Thus, there are no objective mandates for consumer product safety. After last summers string of product recalls, the U.S. and Chinese product safety agencies met to discuss new measures, including banning the use of lead paint in toys exported to the United States. Still, there is little hope for progress unless Chinese local authorities stop haphazardly enforcing rules and regulations.
Emergency Response Law
What it says: Designed to ban the spread of false information during disasters, the law prohibits units and individuals from fabricating or spreading false information regarding emergencies and government efforts to cope with emergencies. It also mandates local governments and authorities to provide coordinated, accurate and timely information on the emergency and its development.
What it does: Passed in the wake of Chinese stonewalling during the SARS outbreak in 2003, the law ostensibly aims to improve the spread of information. But critics contend it just as easily muzzles the press. Chinas legislature did water down a measure that would have imposed strict fines on the media for inaccurate reporting, but the law still contains provisions revoking media licenses for violations. State media coverage of coal-mine and other industrial accidents has been limited, as the government worries such reporting would provoke social unrest.