Fri, Dec 05, 2014 - Page 4 News List

On first ‘Constitution Day,’ China blocks protests

AFP, BEIJING

Chinese students at a rural school yesterday sign their names on a banner which reads: “Promote the spirit of the constitution, build a harmonious campus,” in Binzhou, Shandong Province. China marked its first national Constitution Day with readings at schools across the country and other activities.

Photo: AFP

China marked its first national Constitution Day yesterday with readings at schools across the nation, activities promoting the rule of law and the blocking of protests at Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese National People’s Congress last month designated Dec. 4 as National Constitution Day to promote the document adopted in its current form on that date in 1982.

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) showed footage of judicial employees swearing an oath to the constitution at Beijing’s high court.

On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) said China’s constitution “guarantees the socialist path with Chinese characteristics,” according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.

Schools across China were to hold readings of the constitution — according to a Ministry of Education directive — and tables were set up on some central Beijing streets with posters and materials promoting the document.

Yet at Tiananmen Square, the vast public space in the heart of the capital, citizens seeking to protest were blocked by police from doing so.

A middle-aged man was stopped and got into an altercation with police officers at a security checkpoint after he attempted to enter the square with briefcase of fliers.

One officer recorded video as another yelled at the man, grabbed him by the front of his coat and thrust him into a chair.

Half a dozen people were also seen being bundled by police into a van at the center of the square yesterday morning, although it was unclear whether they were seeking to demonstrate.

Meters away from the square, an electronic billboard — adorned with at least three closed-circuit TV cameras — carried messages promoting the new commemoration, previously known as Legal Day.

“Dec. 4 is National Constitution Day and National Day of Promoting the Legal System,” it read. “Promote the spirit of the constitution, establish constitutional authority.”

Article 35 of China’s constitution states: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

Yet the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on expression, with protests regularly quashed and human rights lawyers and activists coming under increasing pressure since Xi took power last year.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a specialist in China’s political and legal systems at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that the party’s renewed promotion of the constitution is in part an effort to address pressure being exerted by the nascent rights defense movement within China.

In a December 2012 speech, Xi emphasized the primacy of the constitution, but Cabestan said that lawyers and other reformists who viewed his remarks as a call for greater judicial independence misinterpreted the leader’s words.

“Some reformists and legal experts jumped on that occasion to launch this constitutionalism debate and try to push the limits of the system,” he said. “They failed, and the result has been the arrests of a number of activists.”

A conclave of top party leaders in Beijing last month made clear that “the constitution is under the leadership of the party,” Cabestan added.

China’s state-run media outlets yesterday ran a series of articles promoting the new Constitution Day.

In an editorial, the Global Times wrote: “The constitution clearly states that the [party] is the leader of this country, but it also endows Chinese people with free speech. If some people take advantage of their rights to speak freely, circulating ideas to topple the party’s leadership, how can we define the nature of their actions?”

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