CPC convenes first plenum on 'rule of law' in reform, anti-graft drive

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When elite members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) gather this week for a key annual policy-setting meeting, their presence alone will be enough to make history.

The fourth plenary session of the 18th CPC Central Committee - slated for Oct. 20-23 - is billed as a milestone in China's political reforms and progress, as it will be devoted to the central theme of "rule of law" for the first time in the Party's history.

The meeting will deliberate on a draft decision of the CPC Central Committee on "major issues concerning comprehensively advancing rule of law," sources close to the meeting said.

The decision is widely expected to set the tone for the CPC to promote rule of law in China in an all-rounded manner under new circumstances.

Seldom has any other political concept been assigned the same gravity - rule of law is, as many analysts have noted, the cornerstone of the modernization of China's state governance and national rejuvenation.


But the phrase is not new in the CPC's official discourse, rather one that has been championed for decades.

China wrote rule of law into its Constitution in the 1990s. The 15th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1997 decided to make "the rule of law" a basic strategy and "building a socialist country under the rule of law" an important goal for socialist modernization.

The phrase "exercises the rule of law, building a socialist country governed according to law" was added to the Constitution in 1999.

In 2012, the new leadership of the CPC Central Committee envisioned a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020, when "rule of law should be fully implemented as a basic strategy, a law-based government should be basically functional, judicial credibility should be steadily enhanced, and human rights should be fully respected and protected."

Last month, members of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee echoed that vision some 700 days after Xi Jinping took the helm of the CPC in 2012 at the Party's 18th national congress.

Rule of law, they agreed, is "a must" if the country wants to build a prosperous society, rejuvenate the nation, comprehensively deepen reform, and improve socialism with Chinese characteristics and the Party's governance capability.

Never before had the notion carried so much weight in a country that has for thousands of years championed the efficiency of "rule of man" over rule of law.

"All the land under heaven belongs to the emperor, and everyone is his servant," the famous saying from China's first poetry collection Shijing goes.


Many believe rule of law holds the key to the success of China's current reforms and is the harbinger of the nation's evolution toward modern civilization.

They also argue that rule of law could help institutionalize the popular anti-corruption campaign, push forward deeper reforms, and help stabilize the Chinese economy.

Facing mounting downward pressure and a painful economic transition, promoting rule of law has raised high hopes of an orderly and effective market that might offer new dividends for the Chinese economy.

This is especially true since almost all the pains currently suffered by the Chinese economy - ranging from overcapacity, real estate bubbles, risks of local government debts and shadow banks, to restricted growth in non-public sectors and insufficient innovation - could find their roots in excessive administrative interference, corruption and unfair competition, all of which are the result of the lack of rule of law.

With China's current reform drive picking up momentum, the quest to make Chinese governance more law-based is more urgent than ever.

Fortunately, profound changes are taking place.

In Shanghai, a commercial hub considered the "laboratory" for China's reforms, the government began to implement the city's own regional law for its free trade zone (FTZ) on August 1 this year, allowing for greater financial openness and fewer government controls on business activities.

The city also appointed the country's first group of assistants to judges and procurators as part of its efforts to improve judicial personnel management and cement judicial professionalism and independence.

There is more. The acquittal of Nian Bin due to insufficient evidence eight years after he was wrongly imprisoned for poisoning four people and the overturning of a death sentence for two men convicted of raping the daughter of social campaigner Tang Hui all testify to the stricter implementation of rules in Chinese courts and procuratorates.

Nonetheless, past shadows of the "rule of man" are not easily shaken off.

From macroeconomic overhauls to micro social management, an obsolete "above-the-law" privilege mentality remains among some Party and government officials, with unchecked power turning into a hotbed for corruption.

The struggle is sharpest when viewed in historical context. China laid the foundation for rule of law in the country's first constitution in 1954.

But the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 damaged progressive legal reforms, and at one point even left the country without a working constitution.

To ensure that China's development will no longer be vulnerable to similar uncertainties and upheavals, Chinese leaders have since highlighted the importance of rule of law on various occasions.

Speaking at the third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said, "To ensure people's democracy, we must strengthen our legal system."

"Democracy has to be institutionalized and written into law, so as to ensure that institutions and laws do not change whenever the leadership changes, or whenever the leaders change their views or shift the focus of their attention," said the man later dubbed chief architect of China's socialist reform.


The government announced that a "socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics" was basically established in 2010.

But rule of law entails much more than just having a system of laws, according to Shen Guoming, deputy head of the China Society of Jurisprudence.

"Having a set of laws in place is not the whole story. We must also make sure that the laws are enforced in a strict manner and that lawbreakers are all prosecuted in accordance with the law," said Shen, who has worked as a consultant for this week's CPC meeting.

Jiang Ping, another law expert, believed that however the rule of law was stressed, power abuse is still a common phenomenon in China. Some officials took the lead in violating laws.

Ren Runhou, former vice governor of Shanxi, who was caught for bribery earlier this year, had a theory. He thought that power could generate profit, while money could buy power. Once visiting a coal mine, he asked the staff members "if I give you the right of sales, the right to hire people and the right to purchase material, will you earn another 100 million yuan (about 16.3 million U.S. dollars) for the mine?"

Improvement of laws and regulations is another necessity for rule of law.

An unnamed procurator told Xinhua that some clauses were not precise with loopholes. "Such as sentencing," he said. "A corrupt official who took 100,000 yuan might be sentenced to death, while another who embezzled millions of yuan could only be jailed for 15 years."

Their words were echoed by Zhou Hanming, another law expert and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

In a country that boasts a population of over 1.3 billion, the long march to rule of law has to be completed by the entire public rather than the ruling Party and government alone, Zhou added.

"Raising legal awareness and consciousness among the public is the linchpin to promoting rule of law," he said.

Some signs are already pointing in this direction.

"The management of even the smallest communities has to be done in strict compliance with the law," said Hu Jingqin, Party secretary of the Wenanlu Community in Shenyang of Liaoning Province, citing a landmark property law adopted in 2007 that granted equal protection to both public and private property.

Civil legal aid agencies are also reaching out to schools and kindergartens in the wake of increasing violence targeting children and teenagers.

Shen said the focus of this week's plenary meeting is to enhance judiciary efficacy and authority, adding that it is not plain sailing to have 1.3 billion people act in strict accordance with the laws in every aspect of their lives.

Law experts also see "rule of Constitution" as a higher level of rule of law.

A previous mention of "rule of Constitution" dates back to 2003 in a work report of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

Chinese president Xi Jinping also said that the authority of the Constitution and the rule of law should be promoted, adding that fully implementing the Constitution is the primary task and basic work in building a socialist nation ruled by law, and that the Constitution is the country's basic law and the general rule in managing state affairs.

Analysts say that, under the Constitution, the rule of law will not only constrain power but also protect people's rights and interests to ensure maximum fairness and justice -- both targets the CPC has been striving for.

And that is why the fourth plenary session of the 18th CPC Central Committee will become a landmark event in the history of both the Party and China.

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