For six decades, Chinese leaders have tried to put in place a sweeping civil code to explain the law on some of China’s most contentious issues, including property rights, migrant workers, defamation and divorce.
For six decades, they have failed, stymied by political squabbling and social upheaval, leaving China with a piecemeal and outdated legal system.
Now, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is reviving the idea of a national civil code as he seeks to remake China’s justice system. His administration has embraced the code as a tool to fight corruption and fickleness in the courts, as well as to formalize state power on issues as varied as free speech and parental responsibility.
“Even while engaging in terrific repression in some respects, there is a desire to show continuing legal progress,” said Jerome Cohen, a New York University expert on Chinese law. “Xi is trying to convince the world that China now can take the lead.”
On Wednesday last week, the Chinese National People’s Congress, a rubber-stamp body of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), took a first step toward adopting a civil code, overwhelmingly approving a set of guiding principles and vowing to finish a complete code by 2020.
However, to succeed, Xi and lawmakers would need to overcome significant ideological divisions within the party, especially on heated issues such as how to handle land disputes.
China’s government often tries to present the image of a unified and efficient bureaucracy marching in step. However, the struggle over the civil code is a reminder that it remains divided on a range of ideological and policy issues, complicating the leadership’s efforts to meet rising public expectations.
China’s leaders also face resistance from advocates and rights-minded academics, who dismiss the civil code as nothing more than window dressing and a means for Xi, who has pushed hard-line policies during his more than four years in power, to restrict free speech in China further.
Critics cite as a worrying sign the decision by lawmakers, during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress this month in Beijing, to make the defamation of CCP “heroes and martyrs” a civil offense.
“Will other citizens’ rights be protected as well?” asked He Weifang (賀衛方), a professor of law at Peking University and a prominent critic of the CCP. “This is a really bad move and has violated the basic spirit of civil laws, which champion dignity, personal freedom and equality.”
Still, others have warned that enshrining too many freedoms in the civil code, which hundreds of thousands of judges across the country will use to decide disputes large and small, might risk creating social unrest.
One prominent legal academic, Liang Huixing (梁慧星) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, has raised the possibility of revolution if China were to guarantee expansive personal freedoms, such as property rights and free speech in the civil code, as some lawmakers and scholars have suggested.
He has drawn comparisons to the 2014 uprising in Ukraine, warning of the threat posed by “unchecked freedom.”
Zhou Guangquan (周光權), a lawmaker and a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, dismissed concerns that the government was not interested in protecting individual rights.
He said it was essential to update China’s civil law, which has its roots in German law and was last significantly revised in the 1980s, before economic and social transformations.