In all those instances, rulers experimented with a constitution to bolster the power of the governing body, said Sam Crane, a political scientist at Williams College who specializes in China.
“Constitutions were something that strong states had; therefore, China had to have one,” he said. “Thus, Chinese constitutions were not really effective in limiting state power and protecting individual liberties. That might be changing now.”
Recent attempts by academics looking to defend the legitimacy of the constitution, he said, “might be due to the growth of ‘rights consciousness’ in the People’s Republic of China in recent years.”
Advocates of constitutionalism say their approach should be more acceptable to the party than Charter ‘08, an online petition calling for gradual political reforms that secured thousands of signatures but was banned by officials. One of its authors, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for subversion, and his wife, Liu Xia (劉霞), has been under house arrest. Liu Xiaobo was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Some party censors have reacted with caution or hostility to the recent calls for constitutionalism. In recent weeks, the term “constitutional governance” could not be searched on microblogs. And the petition organized by Zhang, which he prefers to call an initiative, has been scrubbed from many sites on the Internet.
“I take it to mean that the government doesn’t want this to spread too far domestically,” Zhang said. “Perhaps they’re not ready yet.”
Nonetheless, talk of constitutionalism has become daily fare on literati Web sites like Gongshiwang, a politics forum. Typical was a Jan. 24 essay that ran on the site by Liu Junning (劉軍寧), a political scientist, who seized on Xi’s most recent remarks on “caging power” and traced the concept to the Magna Carta and the US Constitution.
“Constitutional governance is restricted governance,” Liu wrote. “It is to tame the rulers. It is to shut the rulers in a cage.”