Barring exceptional circumstances, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will convene its fourth plenum in late October. Why is there so much attention on it? Because, according to official media reports, the plenum will endeavor to advance the rule of law in China. Some may wonder, of course why the rule of law is an enormously important issue, but is it necessary to bring hundreds of senior officials to Beijing for a special discussion? Those who ask this question obviously do not know China so well. It may be useful to remind us that the upcoming Party conclave is going to be the first one that specifically addresses the “rule of law” issue in the era of reform and opening.
Different from his predecessors, Xi Jinping and his team understand the urgency of establishing the rule of law and accord it high priority in their policy agenda. They see deepening the rule of law as a primary goal in their vision of China and part and parcel of a modern governance system. This is a very significant development in the history of the CPC.
It is no secret that traditional Chinese society values order and believes that “just as ministers must obey their monarch, the son must obey his father”. Moral teachings such as “Benevolence is to love your kind” have had a deep impact on the Chinese approach to running the state as well as the family. This longstanding “rule by virtue” tradition has been quite effective until the waning years of the Mao era, before the introduction of the market economy. However, today’s China is a very different place, where commerce has blossomed in a few short decades. It is now ineffective, even quixotic, to try to regulate human relationships and market activities through this heavily moral approach.
After Xi ascended to the presidency, he has repeatedly made the pertinent point that “our work must be oriented toward addressing problems and difficult issues”. The rule of law is certainly a central challenge facing contemporary China. It is being made the focus of a key Party plenum demonstrates that Xi is a thoughtful and courageous leader, a politician who understands his country’s priorities.
People are familiar with the range of problems facing Chinese leaders today. They include official corruption, commercial fraud, environmental degradation and moral decline, to name just a few. Failure to get to grips with these problems, a symptom of government inaction, has aroused public and media discontent about and disappointment with the government bureaucracy across the country.
The ongoing campaign against corruption has made important headway, but China is still far from establishing proper institutional checks. Even Wang Qishan, the Politburo Standing Committee member winning kudos for the suite of measures he has taken against this menace, has admitted that the fight against corruption remains a long and uphill battle.
There is also commercial fraud and deceit. It may not be fair to say that everyone is haunted by constant fears, but it is no exaggeration to describe the situation as a festering cancer. Commercial fraud has, in no small degree, disrupted market order and made life more difficult for the average Chinese.
Environmental degradation – from the air to the soil to water sources – is another fact of life that Chinese people grapple with. This has already alerted the authorities. Premier Li Keqiang has noted publicly that the first thing that many Chinese do every morning is to check the air quality.
Besides all these, people are also worried about law and order, food safety, workplace safety, traffic accidents, construction standards, etc. The long list of terrible accidents in recent years are both shocking and sobering.
Xi Jinping observed recently that the CPC faces more problems, risks and challenges than ever before. If China is to navigate these uncharted waters, it must harness the power of the “rule of law”. This is essential to reconciling divergent interests, regulating human relationships and standardizing citizen behavior. It is the best way to make sure that Chinese society will remain orderly in the midst of the profound changes and attendant throes – and as important, remain optimistic and creative.
Given the enormous tragedy of the decade-long Cultural Revolution – in which not even the President of China was able to protect himself – and the many pressing problems plaguing China today, the CPC doesn’t need to look far to see that deepening the rule of law is the only recipe for tightening the fabric of Chinese society and soothing its many anxieties. Both history and reality dictate that we see the rule of law as a vital ingredient of a modern state and a contributing factor to lasting peace and stability in China.
Of course, the renewed focus on the rule of law does not mean that China is a lawless country. The problem is that the laws are not followed and enforced. Furthermore, there is a disconnect between the enactment, application and enforcement of law. In this connection, the revelation of the corruption scandal involving Zhou Yongkang, until recently the top official in charge of public security in China, highlights the urgency of judicial reform, which many hope the fourth plenum will take on rather than dodge.