Xi Jinping is invoking the “rule of law”. That’s risky for him and good for China
DRAFTERS of Communist Party documents in China are masters of linguistic sleights; Deng Xiaoping invented the term “socialist market economy” to satisfy hardline ideologues while he steered the country towards capitalism. Now the party is trumpeting a new slogan: “Socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics”. At an annual plenum that ended on October 23rd, the Central Committee promised that it would be implemented by 2020 (see article) and would lead to “extensive and profound” changes. If they are anything like as significant as those that Deng’s catchphrase heralded, then this is a welcome development.
This new enthusiasm for the rule of law springs from the campaign against corruption. Xi Jinping, the party leader, aims to restrain officials and prevent their rampant corruption from causing public anger to boil over. The Central Committee has decided to make local courts more impartial and to penalise officials for telling judges what to decide. And, lest everyday laws continue to fail to have the desired effect, Mr Xi is invoking the highest law of all: the constitution.
Officials will now have to swear loyalty to China’s constitution. There is to be a new “National Constitution Day”. Schools are to teach its importance. The idea is to make it clear to errant officials that, no matter what they may think of ordinary laws and regulations, there is a big one they cannot ignore. The constitution, for example, enshrines property rights. Of the many thousands of “mass incidents” of unrest each year in rural China, 65% relate to disputes over the (often illegal) seizure of land by officials. Mr Xi wants to make it clear that their behaviour is not just illegal but also unconstitutional. That sounds scarier.
Mr Xi’s initiative is good news in two ways. First, it has encouraging implications for his anti-corruption campaign. Xi-watchers are uncertain whether the campaign is a sincere effort to clean up the country or an excuse for a purge of officials the president has taken against. That he is emphasising the rule of law, rather than just continuing to pick off his enemies, suggests that the target really is corruption.
Using China’s constitution is a risk for Mr Xi—which is the second reason why this development is good news. The constitution is festooned with language relating to political rights. It guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and of religious belief. Thanks to an amendment in 2004, it even guarantees “human rights”. Campaigners invoke the constitution in their cause. Last year journalists at Southern Weekend, a newspaper based in Guangzhou, went on strike after propaganda officials changed a leading article that called for guaranteed constitutional rights.
The party says Chinese interpretations of such notions as human rights are different from those in the West, and continues to persecute dissidents, Christians (see article) and other trouble-makers. Many Chinese, however, believe that terms such as “human rights” mean exactly the same in China as they do elsewhere. By invoking the constitution so strongly, Mr Xi is likely to reignite calls among the country’s beleaguered liberals for it to protect citizens more broadly than he intends.
Mr Xi has been presiding over the most sweeping crackdown on dissent that China has seen in years. He has clearly felt no compunction about using the law to do so, and it seems highly unlikely that he intends to use the constitution to check the power of the party itself. Yet he is clearly a brave leader who is prepared to take risks. If he really wants to clean up the system and defuse public anger, he should give Chinese citizens the rights enshrined in the constitution. It is the only way to bring about the “extensive and profound” change he has promised them.