February 16, 2016
At its fourth plenary session of the 18th congress in October 2014, the Chinese Communist Party leadership passed an ambitious reform plan on the legal system. The party devoted this entire plenary session to discuss “rule of law” — something unprecedented in the history of the party’s plenary sessions. This act was widely interpreted as the Xi Jinping leadership’s determination to build a system of “rule of law” in the country.
Indeed, Beijing’s reform initiatives are part of a long-term endeavor to build a system of “rule of law” since the late Deng Xiaoping. When the victims of the lawless Cultural Revolution, such as Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen, became the party’s senior leaders in the late 1970s they believed that without laws, both the ruler and the ruled could not be protected from the arbitrary behavior of individual leaders. With their efforts, concepts such as “equality before the law,” “the supremacy of the law,” “the rule-of-law-state” and “judicial independence” began to appear in the party’s official documents, became popular in the discourse of legal development and produced profound and lasting impact on Chinese society over the years. In 1997, pushed very hard by the reformist leader Qiao Shi, “rule of law” was formally written into the party congress document at the 15th Party Congress.
Xi now wants to make it the party’s top priority.
However, there is a big gap between ideal and reality. Less than one year after the party invoked the building of the “rule of law,” 317 human rights lawyers, activists and their family members in China were reportedly detained and investigated in what has been dubbed the “709 crackdown” by the media in the West. Since July 2015, and several attorneys have been formally arrested on suspicion of subverting state power in January 2016. In addition, a new draft law bars any Chinese NGO from receiving foreign funding and calls for NGOs to act in accordance with the Chinese law. The move to clamp down on NGOs raised concerns as charity workers fear their work being intensely curtailed in China.