Asia
11:06 am
Wed September 18, 2013

China's Debate: Must The Party Follow The Constitution?

Originally published on Wed September 18, 2013 8:01 pm

Several weeks back, officials with the East China University of Political Science and Law met one of its professors, Zhang Xuezhong, at his favorite hangout, a coffeehouse in Shanghai.

Sitting in a private room, they told him he was suspended from teaching for articles he had posted on the Internet. In them, Zhang had argued that China's government needs to build a real rule of law — one to which even the party is accountable — as well as a system of checks and balances.

One way to start, he says, is to live up to the promises made in China's 1982 constitution.

In many countries, that's just assumed. In China, it's at the center of a bitter debate between reformers and conservative Communist Party members over the future of the country's political system.

Increasingly, scholars like Zhang are using China's own constitution against the ruling party to try to make the government more accountable to the people.

An Indirect Call for Democracy

At the coffeehouse, officials told Zhang his views violated the constitution. Zhang told them they had it backward.

"I said, 'You're just doing this to put a crime to what I say,' " recalls Zhang, 34. " 'Exercising my right to express my views doesn't break the law, because freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the constitution.' "

Indeed, freedom of speech is in the constitution's Article 35, along with freedom of the press, assembly, association and demonstration — rights the party has never upheld.

Zhang says pressing the party to adhere to China's constitution is a way to outflank officials who reflexively dismiss more dramatic calls for reform, such as open elections.

"If you ask directly for democracy, it is pretty sensitive and you won't get a response," says Zhang. "Some scholars now call for constitutionalism. It's more strategic as it avoids the issue of a one-party or a multiparty system. It calls on the government to at least abide by the laws made by itself."

Zhang says the constitutional argument also forces the government to take a position that reveals its true nature and what it really cares about.

"When people ask you to follow your own laws, the demand is legitimate," says Zhang. "If you don't follow it, it will make more people realize that you are a liar and also destroy your legitimacy."

Hope, Then Backlash

Reformers have pushed for a genuine constitutional government in the past, but they rekindled the argument this year in hopes the party's incoming leadership might respond.

Initially, there were flickers of hope. In a speech last December, China's new president, Xi Jinping, urged officials to uphold the constitution.

"We must firmly establish, throughout society, the authority of the constitution and the law, and allow the overwhelming masses to fully believe in the law," Xi said.

But this summer, at least 200 state-controlled publications ran articles criticizing the call for a genuine constitutional system, according to the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. The journal Red Flag said the constitutionalism argument was really just a Western plot.

"Western nations hope to propagate the idea of constitutionalism in China as a means of abolishing the leadership of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and the socialist system," said the author, Wang Tingyou, an assistant professor at People's University in Beijing.

Most of the articles, though, were written under pseudonyms, making it hard to know just who was behind the campaign.

The authors used pen names like "Ma Zhongcheng," which means "Marxism Loyalty" in Chinese.

Joseph Cheng, who teaches political science at City University of Hong Kong, says the writers wanted to attack constitutionalism but hide their tracks.

"They understand this is not something popular," says Cheng. "Their true identities would indicate their affiliations, which would then be traced back to top leaders."

Threat Of Endemic Corruption

Beyond the political argument for constitutionalism, another point proponents make is economic and practical. When China was poor and backward, monitoring public finances was not a huge concern. After all, there wasn't that much to lose or steal.

Now that China is the world's second-largest economy, the government spends trillions of dollars in public money with little oversight.

"It's just crazy," says Zhiwu Chen, a professor of finance at the Yale School of Management who spoke in favor of constitutionalism at a forum in Beijing this year. "It's much better to be the president of China than any other country, because you get to have so much say over so much money and so many things and yet you're not subject to much scrutiny or much checks and balances."

Chen says a big reason some officials fight such a system is fear that independent courts — which currently answer to the party — will expose the mass corruption that has become endemic to the system.

"It's human nature to fight to try to [hold] on to such privileged powers," Chen says. "But, on the other hand, Chinese people are not stupid. Chinese people are very smart."

There is no sign China's new leaders are interested in political reform now, but Chen says as ordinary Chinese grow more sophisticated, they will continue to press for the oversight and protections afforded by a constitutional system.

He thinks it's just a matter of time, though at the rate things are going, perhaps a very long one.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last month in Shanghai, a university suspended a professor from teaching. Among his political offenses was that he urged the Communist Party to respect China's constitution. That tactic is part of a growing push to make China's government more accountable to its people by using the country's own constitution against the ruling party.

From Shanghai, NPR's Frank Langfitt explains.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I met Zhang Xuezhong in the same coffee house where people from his school, East China University of Political Science and Law, told him he was no longer welcome in the classroom.

ZHANG XUEZHONG: (Through translator) They said this was the decision of the university work unit, because views I expressed in public violated the constitution, the teacher's law and the higher education law.

LANGFITT: Zhang is a 34-year-old with spiky, disheveled hair. He'd argued on the Internet that China's government needs to build a real rule of law, one to which even the party is accountable, as well as a system of checks and balances. One way to start, he said, is to live up to the promises made in China's 1982 constitution.

When officials told Zhang he'd broken the law, he told them they had it all wrong:

XUEZHONG: (Through translator) I said, you're just doing this to put a crime to what I say. This isn't reasonable. Exercising my right to express my views doesn't break the law, because freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the constitution.

LANGFITT: Zhang is right. It's in Article 35, along with freedom of the press, assembly, association and demonstration - all things the party has never observed.

Zhang says pressing officials do adhere to China's constitution is a way to outflank them.

XUEZHONG: (Through translator) If you ask directly for democracy, it's pretty sensitive and you won't get a response. Some scholars now call for constitutionalism. It's more strategic as it avoids the issue of a one-party or a multiparty system. It calls on the government to at least abide by the laws made by itself.

LANGFITT: Reformers have pushed for a genuine constitutional government in the past. But they re-kindled the argument this year in hopes the party's incoming leadership might respond. Instead, at least 200 state-controlled publications ran articles criticizing the call for constitutionalism.

Joseph Cheng teaches political science at City University of Hong Kong.

JOSEPH CHENG: Their arguments are that constitutionalism is something Western. It has nothing to do with China. They will even say that constitutionalism is a kind of conspiracy.

LANGFITT: The journal Red Flag said the ultimate goal of constitutionalists is to push the party from power. So, who was behind all the attack pieces? It's hard to know. Most of the authors used pseudonyms. Pseudonyms like: Ma Zhongcheng, which means: Marxism Loyalty, in Chinese.

Joseph Cheng says they wanted to make a point, but hide their tracks.

CHENG: They understand that this is not something popular. Their true identity would indicate their affiliations, which will then be traced back to top leaders.

ZHIWU CHEN: I'm Zhiwu Chen, professor of finance at the Yale School of Management.

LANGFITT: Chen, a trained economist from China, has publicly argued for a constitutional system during a visit to Beijing, not just for political reasons but practical ones.

Now that China is the world's second-largest economy, the government spends trillions of dollars in public money with little oversight.

CHEN: It's just crazy. It's much better to be the president of China than any other country, because you get to have so much say over so much money and so many things. And yet you're not subject to much scrutiny or checks and balances.

LANGFITT: Chen says a big reason some officials fight such a system is fear. Fear that independent courts, which currently answer to the party, will expose mass corruption.

CHEN: It's human nature to fight to try to stay on to such privileged powers. But on the other hand, you know, Chinese people are not stupid. Chinese people are very smart.

LANGFITT: There is no sign China's new leaders are interested in political reform now. But Chen says as Chinese grow more sophisticated, they'll continue to press for the oversight and protections afforded by a constitutional system. He thinks it's just a matter of time; although at the rate things are going, perhaps a very long one.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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