Moral of the law

In his latest meeting with consultants to the State Council, Premier Wen Jiabao expressed serious concerns about what he called the absence of good faith and a slide in morals.

He said the incessant stream of food-related scandals, from contaminated milk and pork to recycled cooking oil and the more recent “colored steamed-buns”, testifies to the severity of society’s moral degeneration.

We share his concern, and echo his lament that a nation without fine citizenship and moral fiber can never be a truly strong country, “a country others respect”.

In particular, we share his desire for changes to be made.

The worrisome truth in present-day China is that some of our nation’s, and indeed humanity’s, fine moral values have been stood on their heads, and shamelessness is taking over.

One simple, though in no sense insignificant, example is that honesty is now a personal quality to be ridiculed, and being called a good person is equivalent to an insult. Instead, lying is taken for granted as a natural part of officialdom.

It sounded quite sorrowful when Premier Wen quoted extensively from ancient sages to urge, and encourage, his official advisers to be truth-tellers. But that is part of our moral reality.

Something must be done. But once again we find ourselves facing the same old questions – what to do and where to start.

Premier Wen was correct in portraying upgrading the nation’s morality as “complicated and arduous social systems engineering”. And there is nothing wrong with his proposal to incorporate rule of law with moral enlightenment.

But the crux again is how to make it work. The tricky theoretical distinctions and correlations between morality and laws aside, we believe that improving the rule of law is conducive to improving moral consciousness.

Laws exist not to hallmark moral ideals. Instead, they, in many cases, delineate society’s moral bottom lines. A well-implemented law illustrates to what extent a certain behavior is morally unacceptable.

Compared with hollow rhetoric about morality, it is more meaningful for the authorities to deliver to the national populace the message that they are faithfully committed to rule of law. Or in other words, the law will be taken seriously.

However, the authorities’ persistent inclination to turn everything into political indoctrination may render this a failure. Certainly a national moral rejuvenation will prove impossible until the authorities seriously rethink their favored approach to ideological work.

People need to be convinced that no member of society, be it an individual or institution, will be above and beyond the law. For that to happen, officials need to be convinced the law will no longer be bent in their favor when they violate the law.

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