After the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the surviving Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders pursued a project that might sound familiar to those in the West: Write a constitution that enshrines individual rights and ensures rulers are subject to law, so that China would never again suffer from the whims of a tyrant.
The resulting document guaranteed full powers for a representative legislature, the right to ownership of private property, and freedoms of speech, press and assembly. However, the idealism of the document’s creators was short-lived. Though the constitution was ratified in 1982 by the National People’s Congress it has languished ever since.
Now, in a drive to persuade the Communist Party’s new leaders to liberalize the authoritarian political system, prominent Chinese intellectuals and publications are urging the party simply to enforce the principles of their own constitution.
The strategy reflects an emerging consensus among advocates for political reform that taking a moderate stand in support of the constitution is the best way to persuade Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), the party’s new general secretary, and other leaders, to open up China’s party-controlled system. Some of Xi’s recent speeches, including one in which he emphasized the need to enforce the constitution, have ignited hope among those pushing for change.
A wide range of notable voices, including ones inside the party, have joined the effort. Several influential journals and newspapers have published editorials in the last two months calling for Chinese leaders to govern in accordance with the constitution.
Most notable among those is Study Times, a publication of the CCP’s Central Party School, where Xi served as president until this year. That weekly newspaper ran a signed editorial on Jan. 21 that recommended that the CCP establish a committee under the national legislature that would ensure that no laws are passed that violate the constitution.
After the end of the party’s leadership transition in November last year, liberal intellectuals held a meeting at a hotel in Beijing to strategize on how to push for reform; constitutionalism was a major topic of discussion. At the end of the year, 72 intellectuals signed a petition that was drafted by a Peking University law professor who had helped organize the hotel meeting. In early January, a censored editorial on constitutionalism at the liberal newspaper Southern Weekend set off a nationwide outcry in support of press freedoms.
Several people involved in the advocacy say their efforts are not closely coordinated, but that rallying around the constitution was a logical first step to galvanize reform.
“We have a common understanding that constitutionalism is a central issue for China’s reform,” said Zhang Qianfan (張千帆), the law professor who drafted the petition. “The previous reform was preoccupied with economic aspects. But we learned from the experiences of the recent two decades that economic reform can go wrong if it’s not coupled with political reform, or constitutional reform actually.”
Through the decades, party leaders have paid lip service to the constitution, but have failed to enforce its central tenets, some of which resemble those in constitutions of Western democracies.
The fifth article says the constitution is the supreme authority: “No organization or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the Constitution and the law.” Any real application of the constitution would mean severely diluting the party’s power.