Building the rule of law in China

By Josef Gregory Mahoney
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, October 28, 2014
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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.

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