A Great Leap Forward or The Status Quo?
From October 20th to October 23rd, the Chinese Communist Party hosted the Central Committee 4th Annual Plenum, which focused on the enforcement of rule of law in the country. This particular gathering of key Chinese Communist Party leaders marks the first time that rule of law will be formally discussed on such a public stage. In a country where judicial power is heavily regulated by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s legislative body), many scholars, particularly those from the West, hail this new focus as a positive development for China’s future.
Indeed, coupled with President Xi Jinping’s much-publicized campaign to crackdown on corruption, some may say China’s future has never looked more promising. However, reflection after the plenum indicates something different: while the Xi government plans to institute reforms such as the development of circuit courts and the promotion of transparency during judicial proceedings, no concrete policies have been outlined to achieve these objectives. While the connections between sustainable economic growth, corruption, and law were reinforced at the plenum, the Chinese government did not institute any tangible methods to implement these policies.
As progressive as some may want to call these reforms, the plenum began by reaffirming the necessity of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party to build “socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics.” What exactly does this mean? This widely known Chinese political categorization implies a fusion of Soviet-style socialism and Confucian/Buddhist influences regarding governance and judicial systems. Observers who are hoping for gradual or radical democratization will not get it anytime soon.
Although the government discussed the continuation of a number of long-running initiatives, such as the crackdown on corruption, perhaps the government’s most interesting emphasis was on the importance of the Chinese Constitution as central to the enforcement of rule of law. This has been particularly reinforced through the designating of a “National Constitution Day” on December 4th in which schoolchildren can partake in civic activity and the general public is to be made aware of the rights and duties they have as Chinese citizens. This move is particularly striking, as the Chinese Constitution is not given as much importance as Chinese “policy suggestions”: Five Year Plans, speeches, and informal and formal policy suggestions from the Party leadership.
There is a hope that stronger enforcement of Constitution will alleviate the seizure of private property, particularly in rural areas, and begin a more widespread push for human rights, but Mr. Xi and his government do not seem to have formulated a tangible plan to begin executing on these priorities. Perhaps there is another purpose in highlighting the importance of the Chinese Constitution: the document contains the duties of Chinese citizens as well as their rights. One such duty is that citizens should not infringe on state interests when exercising their rights and freedoms, which might be another point of emphasis when teaching or learning about the Constitution.
Perhaps the most important announcement was the government’s declaration of a “sunshine” judiciary policy, a conscious attempt to install transparency and accountability in the judicial system. Such a policy would insulate the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (the highest court in China) from government influence and hold judicial officials accountable for their decisions even after retirement – all steps that make Mr. Xi’s government look like it is serious about ending some of the judiciary’s more questionable practices. While the casual mentioning of increasing accountability of transparency might move China in a more progressive direction, it should be noted that no information has been shared regarding the proceedings of high-profile corruption cases of former Politburo member Zhou Youkang and former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission General Xu Caihou. However, the fear that these policies are nothing but empty words to impress the international community and the Chinese people is very tangible.
- Anjana Sreedhar