Empires and Criminals: Can Convict Politics in the Past Shed Light on the Present?
1: Criminalizing the Bureaucrats: Performance Legitimacy and Collective Lies in Early Imperial China (221BCE-25 CE)
Sunday, March 27, 2022
9:00am – 10:30am EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 322B
University of Notre Dame, United States
In the Qin-Han empires, officials—law implementers themselves—easily violated the law and became convicts. As a high-risk job, around 40% of the recorded high officials during their tenures were accused of committing crimes and received punishments ranging from hard labor to death penalty. This paper explores one reason behind this convict politics. I show that meticulous legalization of job performances easily criminalized technical bureaucrats. Aiming to promote efficiency, performance-oriented legislation prescribed rigid and high standard job objectives for officials. Without consideration of circumstances or intentions, those who were industriously devoted to their jobs would likely also violate the law and were condemned. When misdeeds were confused with crimes, and punishment was not deserved and just, resentment arose against the law and sympathy developed for the condemned. More importantly, unreasonable objectives for job performance and excess harsh punishments led to intentional and collective lies. Subordinates and superiors covered each other and blocked the flow of information in the bureaucracy. This prominent and unjust problem triggered continuous and heated discussions, and criticism among scholars, officials, and sometimes the emperors themselves. However, the bureaucratization of legal practice prevented any independent legal philosophers and professionals from emerging, and hindered any efficient legal reforms from occurring.