May 16, 2009

Rule of Moral or Rule of Law?

Rule of Moral or Rule of Law? Contending Passions of China's Information Control in the New Round of Metropolis Development

DONG Hao

This is an outline of my presentation prepared for a Symposium.

Lust, Caution is a movie telling a story in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1940s. I personally like it because it has not only good scenery but also some artistic, as well as sexy episodes. From the law perspective, the interesting thing is: This movie, especially those episodes with nude bodies may not be protected by China's copyright law because Article 1 of that Law said that it aims to promote the development of 'spiritual civilization' but not indecent content, and Article 4 of the Law excludes the copyright protection to 'illegal works'.

Therefore, if someone uploaded the movie to a website in China, the copyright holder might not eligible to sue the uploader for the copyright infringement. On the other hand, if the copyright holder licensed a website to provide the online watching, both the holder and the website might confront with criminal penalty no matter what warning signal had they placed on the website before the visitor could see the movie. The worse thing is no instruction in China's law revealing what is obscene or indecent.

The history of China's endeavour on controlling the information can be described as a contending between rule of law and rule of moral. Until currently, the controlling is mainly based on the judgement of the officer's moral feelings (this includes the traditional moral or the so called Socialist Spiritual Civilization). Why? Because the law is very vague and uncertain.

The more complicated thing is: Some local government tends to carry out the Rule of Moral in name of Rule of Law. In Hangzhou, a new regulation has just promulgated, it says basically anyone who wants to post a thread onto BBS or any public discussion system must register her real name and citizen ID card number to the ISP beforehand.

Why do they believe this controlling will be useful? Not only because they don't understand the technology (if one want, he may break any firewall), but also because of the Chinese legal tradition. Traditional Chinese social controlers used to embedding, or implanting literary or even passionate wordings into the legislation or policy. For example, many officers use 'Internet violence' to support their suggestion to the above real name system. However, the Internet Violence is just a metaphor. There is no possibility to conduct a legal prohibited real 'violence' through the Internet. The only things that may happen are defamation, invasion of privacy or leaking the state secrets, which are far away from the 'violence' in the legal sense, such as battery, trespass or body harassment.

As Aristotle had said, 'the law is free from passions'. Good information governance should be under rule of law. The rule of moral might be efficient in some circumstances, but may also lead to many arbitrary administrations.  For example, there is a 2007 case in Shanghai on the blocking of the website. The plaintiff made a website hosting at a US web server. The website was purely lawful under Chinese law. However because the whole server was blocked afterwards, his website cannot be accessed from China. (Brief the case)

Contrasting to the mainland, the passions or pure moral doctrines are scarcely written in Hong Kong's legislations directly. Comparing with Mainland, Hong Kong has a more precise and value-neutral law on the information controlling. In the Edison Chan's obscene photo case, Hong Kong government firstly tried to determine, in accordance the fixed procedure, whether the photos were consistent with the definition of 'obscene' or 'indecency' regulated in Obscene and Indecent Articles ordinance (Ch. 390 of HK ordinance). The moral criticisms to the author or the uploader of those photos always stayed in the media, and are not concerned by the judges.
The bright aspect on mainland China is: now the controlling is gradually stepping into the pace of rule of law. A good result of recent campaign of attacking indecent content in China is that a semi-governmental organization published 13 standards for distinguishing the indecencies from other contents. It has its defects because the most important thing: procedure of determination is still lacking. However, it is a good start (while the future may still a contending of rule of moral and rule of law).

Between the mainland and Hong Kong, the most essential distinctions are not the buildings, human resources and industries, but the distinction between rule of moral and rule of law. Either of them has advantages for specific cases, while I think as for a general environment, stressing the rule of law would be crucial  for China's new round of development in metropolis. If Shanghai wish to be a financial centre or regain its glorious status that we can see in the movie Lust Caution, it has to be a safe harbour for everyone with clear and stable rule of law.