China Trumpets Rule of Law on First Constitution Day

December 4th is China’s first official Constitution Day, a new holiday conceived at October’s rule-of-law-themed Fourth Party Plenum. State media have hailed the occasion as a demonstration of China’s commitment to rule of law. From Xinhua, for example:

China’s first Constitution Day, which falls on Thursday, is more than a just another official ceremony as the country celebrates its development as a nation working toward the realization of the rule of law.

Although there will be ceremonial arrangements, the day presents an opportunity to educate society about the Constitution.

Students across the country will study the Constitution on Thursday morning and events will be organized to acknowledge Dec. 4, 1982, the day the current Constitution was adopted.

[…] Constitution Day will send out the signal that China is committed to the rule of law. Through comprehensive efforts from awareness campaigns to judicial reform, the country will move closer to the rule of law with the Constitution rooted deeply in everyday life of all residents. [Source]

The article concedes that obedience to the constitution is not yet universal, but officials in Shanghai were keen to emphasize that nobody’s perfect. From Ting Shi at Bloomberg:

In Shanghai, propaganda officials are marking the first Constitution Day by screening movies, including “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Training Day” which depict corruption in the U.S. law enforcement systems, at a film festival to promote better awareness of the 32-year-old charter.

[…] While celebrating the constitution may be intended to bolster the legitimacy of China’s leadership, it could increase the challenge the leaders face in the future, according to Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University who specializes in Chinese law.

“Chinese are highly intelligent people who will increasingly note the contrast between the promises in the Constitution and the realities of daily life,” he said. [Source]

On one blocked social media site, state broadcaster CCTV pointed out its handy constitutional cheat sheet on another:

Fei Chang Dao noted that study of the constitution will not extend to Baidu’s Tieba, where the opening of forums on “the constitution” or “constitutional governance” has been forbidden “in accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies.” The AFP reported that apparent efforts to exercise the constitutional right to free assembly in Tiananmen Square were also blocked.

Although Constitution Day’s official status is new, some have marked the anniversary in the past. Last year, rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang noted it while at the trial of civil society activists Liu Ping, Li Sihua and Wei Zhongping in Jiangxi, and commented on the harassment of lawyers outside the courthouse. Pu was among dozens detained ahead of this year’s 25th Tiananmen anniversary; while most were later released, he now awaits trial for causing disturbance, illegally obtaining personal information, and possibly inciting ethnic hatred and separatism. The Financial Times’ Tom Mitchell suggested that he was one of many who fell victim to false hopes from an earlier round of constitution rhetoric at the start of Xi Jinping’s rule:

“[Xi’s speech] gave the impression, at least to some reformers, that he wanted to empower the constitution,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, at a lecture in Beijing this week. “I don’t think he wanted that really . . . He wanted to make legal reform a priority within the one-party system.”

[… T]he party’s defenders see its constitutionally enshrined “ruling position” as a legitimate constraint on the exercise of civil rights. “China’s constitution confirms both the Communist party’s ruling position and civil freedoms — the two are not contradictory,” said Zhang Xiaoyu, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance. [Source]

Read more on conflicting interpretations of constitutionalism and rule of law, and on the varying prominence of the constitution in Xi-era political rhetoric, via CDT.


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