Late last month, just days before Xi Jinping departed for his first state visit to the Caribbean and the Americas, a full-page editorial appeared in Investor Journal dismissing the Chinese leader’s reformist credentials. Zhao Li, the journal’s editor-in-chief, boldly compared Weibo debates on “constitutionalism” to the Democracy Wall movement of 1979 and the Beijing student protests of 1989. For Zhao, the Party’s conservative response revealed Xi’s true colours: “he is not someone bringing a fresh approach, even less is he ‘cool.’” According to Zhao, Xi lacks the “wisdom and courage” to initiate real political and legal reform.
China’s constitution has attracted unprecedented interest in recent months. The often-ignored document has become a symbol of political reform and rule of law, particularly for liberals who see in it the promise of limited state power. Last month, when state-owned newspapers decried constitutional governance as “bourgeois” and incompatible with Chinese socialism, “constitutionalism” was trending on Weibo with nearly 6 million search results.
While Zhao doubts Xi’s commitment to reform, Xi’s speech last December marking the constitution’s thirtieth anniversary was undoubtedly a trigger for these debates. The speech capped a year in which the Party was rocked by the fall of Bo Xilai, a one-time rival infamous for, among other things, his extra-legal law enforcement campaign in the city-province of Chongqing. Five days after condemning official corruption in his “China Dream” speech, Xi delivered a full-throated defence of the constitution and rule of law.
Every social group and institution in China, Xi declared, “must take the constitution as the fundamental standard of their activities,” protect its integrity, and guarantee its implementation. “No group or individual,” he continued, “may have special privileges exceeding the constitution or the law”.
On Xi’s agenda: “Implement[ing] the fundamental strategy of administering the country in accordance with the law; [and] hasten[ing] the establishment of a socialist rule of law country,” including an “impartial judiciary.”
Moreover, while “maintaining the leadership of the Party” is paramount, Xi declared that “the Party must itself operate within the confines of the constitution and the law.”
In the months since this address, Xi has not been idle. In the same week that Zhao published his editorial, the Central Committee released new internal Party rules that – with the exception of a 1991 “interim” document – were said to be the first since 1921. While the new rules are primarily concerned with procedures for drafting and amending Party regulations, they also codify Xi’s campaign for more frugal officialdom and governance by rule of law. There is also a commitment to the “principle” of transparency: “not publicising” Party rules “should be the exception.”
While ostensibly clarifying Party rules and procedures, the main goal, say some analysts, is to strengthen central control over the Party’s various organs and regional bodies. Moreover, the new document highlights the fact that the Party does indeed operate under different rules to the rest of the population. All in all, whether Xi is willing or able to enact broader reforms, and enforce existing laws, remains an open question.
Joel Wing-Lun is Governance and Law Coordinator for the Australia-China Youth Dialogue