Political reform in China basically boils down to constitutional reform, or xianzheng gaige (宪政改革). This is an old issue, going back as far as the civil war in the 1940s, when the Communists demanded constitutional reform. The term has been on the rise in China’s media over the last 10 years or so. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao talked about “ruling the country according to law” (依法治国). And when Hu Jintao held his first study session of the Political Bureau, the topic was reportedly the Chinese Constitution.
But the term “constitutionalism” remains sensitive, and there are no references to it in contemporary party documents or official speeches. Is that likely to change next week?
Not long ago, the News Commentary Group of China’s Central Propaganda Department (中宣部阅评) – the very same group that led the shutdown of the Freezing Point supplement last year – criticized media for discussing constitutional reforms in Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, editors at some media, fearing criticism, avoid the term.
In a 2004 article in an official journal, writers Wang Yicheng (王一程) and Chen Hongtai (陈红太) advocated against using “constitutionalism” in China, which they called a “capitalist political term.” Others have argued that constitutionalism negates the leadership of the Communist Party, that it means importing a Western-style capitalist democratic system. Last year the head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Chen Kuiyuan (陈奎元), vocally criticized what he called “capitalist constitutionalism”.
But China’s relationship to constitutionalism is more complex. Books on the subject now abound in Chinese, and constitutionalism has become a normative term for many Chinese media, particularly commercial media, as they discuss the general issue of political reform. Chinese leaders, even if they don’t speak publicly about “constitutionalism,” do talk about “ruling the nation according to law” (依法治国). The problem is that they haven’t yet let go of the notion that the nation should be ruled according to the party’s will (以党治国).
Hu Jintao has not led any real progress on political reform over the last five years. But the policy language used by Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has not been unfavorable to political reform. Terms like “scientific view of development” and “harmonious society”, and the emphasis on “people as the dominant factor” (以民为本), all point in the general direction of political reform. It can be said, in fact, that China stands today at the threshold of political reform.
It is not so crucial that Hu Jintao use the term “constitutionalism.” So long as he does not stand openly on the side of the Maoist faction (毛派) in denouncing constitutionalism. So long as he continues to tolerate discussion of constitutionalism. So long as he leaves the road to constitutional reform open for the next generation of Chinese leaders.
Will the next generation of Communist Party leaders talk openly about “constitutionalism”? Will they make real and thorough efforts at political reform? From this point on this is something we should pay close attention to.
(Qian Gang, October 14, 2007)
[Translated by David Bandurski]
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