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Abuse of fines by local govts an abuse of power

By LI YANG | China Daily | Updated: 2022-08-30 08:13

The market watchdog of Yulin, Shaanxi province, fined a local greengrocer 66,000 yuan ($9,538) late last year for selling 2.5 kilograms of celery that did not meet "certain standards", probably due to pesticide residuals, a common reason vegetable vendors are fined.

The greengrocer, who made a gross profit of 20 yuan in total from the celery, which was later defined as "illegal income" and confiscated by local market regulators as well, complained to inspectors of the State Council, the country's Cabinet, through an online petition channel about his ordeal.

And about nine months after he received the fine, his case was made public by mainstream media last week after the State Council picked it as a typical case to warn local market regulatory departments not to overstretch the law for their own narrow ends.

According to China Judgments Online, a website disclosing judicial documents run by the Supreme People's Court of China, the Yulin greengrocer's experience is not uncommon.

In Yulin alone, local market regulators fined at least 21 small individual business owners more than 50,000 yuan each last year, with their "illegal income" ranging from dozens of yuan to hundreds of yuan at most.

After the latest revision in April last year, the Food Safety Law now has sharper teeth than before. And the law enforcers do have the obligation to ensure the law is enforced to the letter to safeguard people's lives and health. However, as the case in Yulin indicates, the fine was obviously disproportionate to the greengrocer's "illegal income", and it is enough to bankrupt a small business that has already been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and the slowdown of economic growth.

The Law on Administrative Penalties clearly stipulates that the establishment and implementation of administrative penalties must be commensurate with the nature, circumstances and degree of social harm of the illegal acts, and the punishment should be combined with law-awareness education of the parties. The exorbitant fines the Yulin market regulators have handed out to small business owners are suspected of violating the law.

The State Council strictly prohibits local governments from seeking to increase their revenue by issuing arbitrary fines. The temporary financial difficulties local governments face are by no means excuses for them to bend the law to openly fleece small business owners. That leads to a multi-lose scenario, as it ruins the business environment, damages the rule of law, stifles the economy and harms the governments' creditability.

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