Charting a New Path
A significant Party plenary session dedicates itself to lifting the rule of law to a new level across China
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UPDATED: October 27, 2014 NO. 44 OCTOBER 30, 2014
Building the Rule of Law in China
The drive entails bettering current conditions as well as maintaining positive growth into the future
By Josef Gregory Mahoney

STAYING ACCOUNTABLE: Officials of Chenzhou, Hunan Province, answer questions from citizens concerning civil affairs at a live televised meeting on August 7. The meeting was part of the Mass Line Campaign of the local government aimed to improve the working style of officials (XINHUA)

Historians give us many reasons for the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In one form or another nearly all of these come back to the inability to change or meet new challenges. But if the hallmark of the Qing was its inability to change, then a case can be made that the opposite has been true of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In modern times, few political organizations in the world rival the CPC in terms of size and time in power; and it is arguably true that none have changed themselves or their countries as much as the CPC has. There is perhaps a correlation here–that the great failure of one political system fostered the opposite characteristic in the political system that succeeded it; but it also raises a question regarding the character of change in post-Qing China. Namely, has it generally come through revolution or reform?

Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, change came primarily through revolution. "Revolution is not a dinner party," as Mao put it, nor was it particularly suitable for reform. In his later years Mao indicated a belief that a new revolution might be required every 10 years in order to tear down barriers to change that inevitably arise amid the sedentary tendencies of bureaucracy. On this point his successors demurred, however, choosing the course of reform; but they did enact term and age limits that were designed to facilitate a generational shift in leadership every 10 years at least. In one sense, this was an attempt to bring order to power transfers and provide a stable political environment for reform. In another sense, it left open the possibility of significant shifts—dramatic but perhaps less so than revolution—that might be desirable and necessary as one generation gave way to the next.

Although it is common to point to the promulgation of the state Constitution in 1954 as a watershed moment in the development for the rule of law in China, most point instead to the new direction China took under Deng Xiaoping's leadership starting in 1978, when the Party began its transition from a revolutionary to reformatory. While this change in thinking was inspired in part by the need to correct and prevent the sort of damages incurred during the "cultural revolution (1966-76)," it was also understood that fostering the rule of law was necessary to facilitate foreign investment, technology transfer, China's global integration, and so on. It was also understood that such developments were necessary for embarking on a new approach to building socialism, including advancing fairness and justice throughout China.

There is ample evidence to indicate that China has made significant gains in developing rule of law since 1978. Many Chinese and foreign observers point to major improvements to administrative law, as well as the development of a more comprehensive legal code to meet longstanding as well as emergent needs. Along the way, numerous well-known achievements have been made in economic and social development. But have these changes occurred come from aspirations of revolution or reform?

While it is common to associate Mao with revolution and Deng with reform, it is clear that the reform and opening-up period was manifestly revolutionary in its thinking, processes and results. In the late 1990s, when the principle of advancing the rule of law became an explicit goal and was enshrined in the Constitution, it was clear that authorities were ready to trade revolution for reform. Unfortunately, during the 10 years that followed, when the Party struggled to resolve political differences within itself between competing visions for progress, a high degree of gridlock ensued, reforms were stymied, various policies' needs were unmet, corruption worsened, and a vicious cycle ensued.

This was the situation encountered by Xi Jinping and the fifth generation of leadership, which took and consolidated power rapidly following the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012. In fact, transfer and consolidation took place so quickly and was followed in turn by a major Party rectification and anti-corruption drive—one that was absolutely unprecedented in terms of scope and depth during the reform and opening-up period. The fact that this drive was initiated in part by a return to concepts and practices that originated under Mao, for example, the new Mass Line Campaign. At the same time, however, the mechanisms established to push through reforms have not been idle. A number of major reforms have been pushed through since the 18th CPC National Congress, and currently, with the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, the Party has indicated its commitment to reforms aimed at advancing the rule of law, including, for example, incremental changes designed to improve transparency and judicial independence.

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