It is unclear whether the latest push will be any more successful than previous efforts. A decade ago, a similar wave of advocacy failed to significantly alter the status quo, despite some initially encouraging words from Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who had been the newly designated president at the time. The authorities admonished academics who took part in seminars on the issue, and propaganda officials ordered the state news media not to publish articles on calls for constitutional government.
Liberals have been encouraged by a speech that Xi gave on the 30th anniversary of the constitution in which he said: “The constitution should be the legal weapon for people to defend their own rights.”
He added that implementation was needed for the document to have “life and authority.”
Analysts say the speech, delivered on Dec. 4 last year, was much stronger than one given on the constitution’s 20th anniversary. And on Jan. 22, Xi said in a speech to an anti-corruption agency that “power must be put in the cage of regulations.”
However, Deng Yuwen (鄧郁文), an editor at the Study Times, said he had so far only seen talk from Xi.
“We have yet to see any action from him,” Deng said. “The constitution can’t be implemented through talking.”
And since taking power, Xi has appeared more concerned with maintaining party discipline than opening political doors. In remarks made during a recent southern trip that have circulated in party circles, Xi said China must avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, which broke apart, in his view, after leaders failed to stick to their socialist ideals and the party lost control of the military.
In part, liberals advocating constitutional checks on power have been energized by the party’s takedown of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), the polarizing former politburo member who is expected to be prosecuted soon on charges of corruption and subverting the law.
One journal supported by reform-minded party elders, called Yanhuang Chunqiu, published a New Year’s editorial that said fully carrying out the constitution would mean “our country’s political system will take a big step forward.”
Wu Si (吳思), the journal’s editor, said in an interview that he expected the “heightened fervor” surrounding constitutionalism to persist “because there is more to the issue to discuss.”
Rulers of modern China have never enforced a constitution that enshrines the law as the highest authority and guarantees the rights of individuals. In the late 19th century, as the Qing Dynasty waned, intellectuals who studied Western political systems, including Liang Qichao (梁啟超) and Kang Youwei (康有為), lobbied rulers to transform China into a constitutional monarchy.
In 1905, the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后 ) established a constitutional commission to search the world for political models to adopt. The Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government tried its hand at creating a constitution for the new republic, but nothing took hold.
The CCP wrote several constitutions after taking power in 1949. The current version, which has been revised four times and had 13 amendments added, was overseen by Peng Zhen (彭真) and Marshal Ye Jianying (葉劍英), two revered communist leaders.