As I wrote last week, the terms “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政) — which had for a time disappeared from China’s official discourse — reemerged in the “Decision” released by the recent 4th Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP.

On Thursday, November 6, 2014, Guangzhou Daily, the official Party paper of the Guangzhou city leadership, published an interview with Mr. Hu Yunteng (胡云腾), a member of the Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Court who took part in the drafting process of the plenum “Decision.”

GD 11.6 page 6

In the interview, run on page 6 of the newspaper, Mr. Hu reveals that “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution” were “for a time taken out” of the “Decision.”

According to President Xi Jinping’s explanation of the plenum, the drafting process of the “Decision” went on for eight months. At the end of January 2014, the Central Committee of the CCP issued “Notice Soliciting Opinions Concerning the Question of the Party’s Comprehensive Promotion of Rule of Law” (关於对党的十八届四中全会研究全面推进依法治国问题徵求意见的通知). In mid-February, the drafting process for the “Decision” began in earnest. The drafting team (起草组) was divided into eight separate research groups (调研组) , which were dispatched to 14 cities and provinces for the purpose of research.

Hu Yunteng informs us:

Once the draft of the ‘Decision’ was complete, the opinions of 118 Central and regional departments were again sought, and the drafting group gave these opinions earnest consideration. Changes went back and forth for many of the opinions. For example, everyone paid a relatively substantial degree of attention to two phrases in the ‘Decision’: “Rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution,” and, “The crux in governing by laws is to govern in accord with the constitution.” These two sentences were included in the original draft of the ‘Decision,’ and then some departments were of the view that much of the content already showed [these concepts], and so for a time these two phrases were taken out.

Mr. Hu does not reveal who he is referring to when he says “some departments.”

Judging from the time frame of the drafting process, we do know that the Central Propaganda Department was already putting together a collection of the president’s speeches called A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping. That book, released in June this year, did not include Xi Jinping’s December 2012 speech on constitutionalism — the first time he had introduced the above-mentioned phrases under contention in the “Decision” drafting process.

Considering the timing, we can suppose that the initial removal of the constitution-related phrases from the draft “Decision” corresponded with the Central Propaganda Department’s eliding of Xi Jinping’s constitution anniversary speech in its published collection.

Here again is Hu Yunteng:

In the 8 months since the set up of the drafting team, we conducted in-depth research and investigation, canvassed widely for opinions, held topic-based debates and constantly discussed changes. During this process, there were three meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee and two of the Politburo for the express purpose of deliberation over the Decision.

When the tens of millions of copies of Xi Jinping collected speeches were distributed without his important remarks on the Constitution, this omission turned heads. On September 5, six weeks before the 4th Plenum was held, Xi Jinping finally mentioned his pair of constitution-related terms in a public speech. And yet, inexplicably, up to the opening of the Plenum, these terms had yet to make it back into the final draft of the “Decision.”

In his interview with the Guangzhou Daily, Hu Yunteng gives us a crucial detail: “In the discussion at the 4th Plenum, some leaders felt these two phrases should be included in the ‘Decision.’ And so, at mid-day on October 23, we members of the drafting team met to discuss whether or not to accept these opinions, and the final decision was to adopt them.

We have no way of knowing for certain who those “some leaders” were. But October 23 was the very last day of the Plenum — so we can say that the terms “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政) were pulled off the bench in the final seconds of the game.

The topsy turvy journey of these two terms — the “constitutional roller-coaster,” as I called it last week — shows us again what a confusing and non-transparent process Chinese politics is.

Hu Yunteng’s interview now makes two things clear. First of all, it explains why the two constitution-related terms were given short shrift in the “Decision.” They were, after all, last-minute add-ons. Second, it now makes sense that just as the “Decision” was released, Party media scrambled to explain in no uncertain terms that the CCP’s rule according to the Constitution is something quite different from Western constitutionalism.

What a truly fascinating business this struggle over language is. Even more unusual, in the context of China’s secretive attitude toward internal decision-making, was the headline for Hu Yunteng’s Guangzhou interview as it was picked up by the likes of People’s Daily Online and Xinhua Online:

“Drafter of Full Text of the ‘Decision’: ‘Rule in Accord With the Constitution’ initially Taken Out.”