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Plenum Opens New Chapter for the Rule of Law in China

Oct 31, 2014

The Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China concluded in Beijing on October 23. Domestic media devoted their front pages to the meeting, and major global media organizations also gave extensive reporting to it. Amid globalization, the pulse of China will, to some extent, exert an impact on the life and destiny of all, including the Americans, and the Fourth Plenum, as the past sessions have proved, is always an important meeting that will decide how the pulse of China beats.

The plenary session this year heard a report by General-Secretary Xi Jinping, approved the decision of the CPC Central Committee concerning important issues on comprehensively advancing the rule of law, deliberated and endorsed a report by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on serious disciplinary violations by Li Dongsheng, Jiang Jiemin, Wang Yongchun, Li Chuncheng and Wan Qingliang, and a report by the disciplinary committee of the Central Military Commission on serious disciplinary violations by Yang Jinshan.

The plenum, for the first time in the Party’s history, took the rule of law as its central theme, gave priority to resolute fight against corruption, and made a series of innovative decisions on promoting the rule of law. In the words of Konstantin Tsapogas von Taube, managing editor of New Europe, a political newspaper of the European Union,“The Fourth Plenary Session will focus on the rule of law, that is, to provide an institutional guarantee for the deepening of comprehensive reforms. It is believed that the Fourth Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee will open a new era for the rule of law in China.”

Why did the Fourth Plenary Session take the rule of law as its central theme? Three reasons could explain. First, China has developed to a new stage in which the rule of law must be implemented. Since the beginning of this year, the international situation has become increasingly complicated and the country’s tasks in reforms are unprecedentedly arduous, and the rule of law is the only solution to such prominent issues as the deep-water-zone reforms and corruption. Second, China is fostering a new concept of development in line with the law. In the past, “wading across the river by feeling the stones” was a common practice, and the country has now clearly stated that the rule of law is the fundamental way for governance. Xi Jinping has pointed out that “strong and effective law enforcement builds a strong nation, but slack law enforcement weakens a nation” and “in the whole process of reforms, a mindset and governance method under the rule of law must be prioritized and the guiding and driving role of the rule of law should be fully tapped.” And third, the rule of law is the historic prerequisite for achieving the Chinese dream. At a Political Bureau meeting of the CPC Central Committee on July 28, it was stressed that “it is a must to comprehensively advance the rule of law so as to realize the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

The decision of the CPC Central Committee on comprehensively advancing the rule of law expounds the innovative judicial system in six aspects. First, it puts forward the blueprint and general target for comprehensively advancing rule of law: to form a system serving the rule of law with Chinese characteristics and build a country under the rule of law.

Second, the decision specifies six tasks: to improve a socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics, in which the Constitution is taken as the core, to strengthen the implementation of the Constitution; to promote administration by law and speed up building a law-abiding government; to safeguard judicial justice and improve judicial credibility; to promote the public awareness of rule of law and enhance the building of a law-based society; to improve team building in the judicial system; and to strengthen and improve the Party's leadership in pushing forward the rule of law.

Third, the plenum proposed the “legislation first” principle, that means, to further promote scientific and democratic legislation, and improve the system to solicit opinions and comments on legislative projects and broaden the channels for wider participation of the public in the legislative process.

Fourth, it puts forward the principle of “ruling and governing the country by the Constitution.”  To realize the rule of law, the country should, first of all, be governed and ruled in line with the Constitution.

Fifth, the plenum specified five systems for the implementation of the rule of law: a perfect system of laws and regulations, a highly efficient system for law implementation, a strict legal supervision system, a strong and effective legal guarantee system, and a perfect system of rules and regulations within the Party.

And sixth, the plenum proposed 11 legal innovations: to set up a mechanism of lifelong liability accounting system for major decisions and a retrospective mechanism to hold people accountable for wrong decisions; to improve the decision-making mechanism in line with the law; to institute a mechanism to examine the legitimacy of major decision-making in governments; to improve the system for independent and impartial execution of the judicial and procuratorate powers according to the law; to set up a mechanism to record officials who interfere in judicial cases, name them publicly and hold them accountable; to set up a protection mechanism for judicial personnel in performing their statutory duties and responsibilities; to experiment a mechanism of separation of the judicial power from the enforcement power; to set up circuit courts of the Supreme People's Court; to establish cross-administrative region courts and procuratorates; to institute a system under which the procuratorates could launch public-interest litigation; and to set up a system to recruit judges and prosecutors from qualified lawyers and law experts.

The plenary session charted a new roadmap for promoting the rule of law, but many challenges remain ahead. China’s legal system still has many defects, such as weak links in the asset declaration system for officials — the lack of substantive examination of the declared items, the public announcement for comments and punishment for fraudulent declarations. Another example is that anti-graft functions are scattered among several institutional systems and the anti-corruption enforcement is not as independent and authoritative as it should be. In dealing with corruption cases, the dual system of Party discipline and legal actions is applied, but the late or delayed involvement by the judicial organs means that the parties or persons concerned usually have leeway to destroy evidences and transfer assets.

Although there are difficulties, China has embarked on fast track of the rule of law in the past two years. At the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee, measures such as promoting the unified management of personnel and resources of local courts and procuratorates below the provincial level and exploring to set up a judicial system appropriately separated from the division of administrative regions were proposed and adopted. With the enforcement of 19 items in the cleanup drive of undesirable work styles — formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance — announced by the CPC Central Committee, the work styles within the Party and government institutions have shown unprecedented improvement. The State Council rescinded or delegated to lower levels more than 600 items subject to administrative examination and approval, which helped unleash enormous vitality and potential for development。And for another example, the Supreme People’s Court has listed and announced 45 goals for judicial system reforms, under which the governmental influence on courts would be weakened.

With the implementation of all these measures, I believe, the Fourth Plenum will become a milestone in the progress of China’s legal system reforms, and will open a new era for the rule of law in China.

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