The rule of law should not be taken for granted

“Travel,” said Francis Bacon, “is part of education” for the young and “a part of experience” for those who are older.


“Travel,” said Francis Bacon, “is part of education” for the young and “a part of experience” for those who are older. But an additional benefit of travel is to remind us why certain places function better than others.

During a recent trip to Hong Kong I met with a plethora of civil servants, some politicians and a few business people, all with an obvious interest in the future of their territory. My purpose was to get a sense of how Hong Kong has held up in the face of massive change occurring in China proper.

While Hong Kong has its own partly-appointed/partly-elected legislature and control of its borders, it faces the pressures of population, pollution, and corruption inherent in residing right next door to China.

Some difficulties, such as pollution, are obviously cross-border, and will only be solved once (mainland Chinese) governments and business hew more closely to the polluter-pay principle and as technology and regulation advance. Others, such as corruption, can be guarded against internally in Hong Kong proper by keeping its own institutions strong.

In general, the Hong Kong mandarins and politicians I met were remarkably clear and unapologetic about two things: First, they want Hong Kong to stay capitalist (imagine a bureaucrat in Ottawa stating that as an end goal). Second, they were determined to ensure the territory continues to be governed according to the rule of law.

Their emphasis on the rule of law might well be the result of being next door to China, whose own justice system, bureaucracy, government and private sector are shot through with corruption and crony capitalism (as opposed to the useful, rules-based and merit-based type of capitalism).

China’s problems with corruption and crony capitalism are partly the result of the inadequate attention it pays to the rule of law and to its weakly enforced property rights. In fact, as measured by my colleagues as part of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index, China legal system and property rights placed 77th out of 153 jurisdictions. (That compares to Hong Kong in the 24th spot and Canada at 11.)

That dismal standing is backed up by anecdotes: one Hong Kong businessman told me the most important thing China could do in the near-term is to clean up its corrupt judiciary. But let’s put China aside and look at another useful benefit from travel: it reminds us that one’s own country should not be taken for granted.

While in Hong Kong, I kept up with latest news on the Senate scandal, including RCMP allegations that attempts were made to water down Senate reports on misbehaving senators. While pressuring senators to weaken reports does not rise to the level of a criminal offence, it does reveal a culture tempted to bend ‘in-house’ rules to gain partisan advantage and/or to avoid further critical headlines.

Such revelations came out the very week I met with officials from Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, an investigative body set up in the 1970s to combat corruption that was then perceived to be widespread in the police, government and in business.

The contrast is obvious: here was Hong Kong, attempting to inoculate itself from the corrupt governance next door while realizing the temptation to bend the rules is a constant, regardless of where one lives. While the importance of the rule of law is blindingly obvious, it would be a mistake to think ‘obvious’ equals ‘unlikely to happen.’

Think of all the graft uncovered in Quebec’s construction and municipal governments in the past year.

One critical difference between a well-functioning city-state on the periphery of east Asia or a country like Canada and China is the degree to which rules are predictable and enforced. Those tempted to bend or break the rules should remember such distinctions, as should the rest of us.

Mark Milke is a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute. His columns are distributed through Troy Media.