Since I got to China, the dichotomy between what the country feels ike from the outside and how things are when you are inside has often struck me. Going just by the reports, China would seem to be a single-party autocracy strictly controlled, without freedom, without law. So, get Beijing to recognize (the Western definition of) human rights, follow the rule of law, and all’s well and good.

Saying it like that, of course, is a prelude to taking this idea apart.

Once you get into China, you notice some other things. Not least, that there are quite enough laws – you run into them even before you arrive, just trying to get the right visa for your stay and fulfilling all necessary requirements –, and there are even more rules.

In fact, you could posit the “law of rules” of the title: in law, and even more so in social conventions and moral suasion, you can be sure that there will be a rule for whatever you’re thinking about. Whether you look at consumers or cooks, matters of the heart or heartless management – you can be sure that a “this is how we do that” could be found.

Oftentimes, it is the intersection of those rules, only some of which are also part of law, many at odds with it, with the law that are producing the most interesting, and maybe puzzling, results. And it does not help that China is indeed very much an implicit, high context-culture, where you just know what you do in which way (including which rules or laws you can or maybe should even break, and when).

Social harmony itself, the oft-proclaimed guiding light of the government, may be the ultimate rule. As long as you don’t rattle the cage, don’t get others to notice something is amiss, you can do pretty much whatever you want – up to some point. Not knowing at what point things have gone too far itself is, as the reactions (or lack thereof) to online statements show, itself a rule strictly followed ;-)

Life itself is regimented by many such rules. #1, to respect your parents – even when they’ve got little clue, e.g. given the tremendous changes that have been occurring.
Still, try to just study when you are in school, forget about relationships even while you study – for the girls, because they are only valuable/fit enough for marriage as virgins; for the men, because the rule is that you need money, house and car before you may even begin to consider yourself marriage material. Of course, marry before you are 30 (males), 26 (females) anyways, have a child soon afterwards, let your parents have the final say in these matters…

The rule is also, however, that the rules may be broken. The current young generation will typically tell their parents that, of course, they are only studying at university – but amongst peers, not being in a relationship is taken as a sign that something is wrong with you. You don’t have to tell, though. Constructivist silence

To get to an intersection in the middle, between social affairs and the law, let’s think of the next actual intersection.

It’s not entirely clear, but does seem to be the case, that there are traffic rules in China, that among those is the need to yield to pedestrians – but while those may be law, not even police typically waits for pedestrians when there is the chance to make use of the right turn on red (which is taken as a right, if not an outright obligation, rather than a privilege).

Pedestrians, as the weaker ones (both physically, and in terms of status), are simply the ones who need to jump out of the way – or thus seems to go the unspoken rule. At the same time, however, the need to use right turn on red is attenuated if there are too many pedestrians, for example. After all, everybody will – whether it’s law or rule – try to avoid getting in trouble. Be that the pedestrians not jumping in front of a car only because the light at the pedestrian crossing is green, or the driver not running over said pedestrians, even if they cross the road wherever and whenever – and as a result, you can get along the road, or across it, quite efficiently.

It works. (Until it doesn’t.)