Is the Rule of Law Coming to China?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jinan Intermediate People's Court/Handout

Is the Rule of Law Coming to China?

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The recently concluded first trial of the Bo Xilai case has turned out – quite unexpectedly to many disillusioned Chinese and seasoned overseas China watchers – to be astonishingly transparent and sophisticated in terms of legal reasoning and argumentation. As it is being celebrated as a landmark in China’s legal development, less dramatic but more profound change has already taken place in China on its long march towards the rule of law.

The changed occurred at the 18th Party Congress. One of the two positions dropped from the Politburo formerly belonged to the chief of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, the party organ overseeing the making and enforcement of law in China. This is regarded as a loosening of the party’s grip over the legal system. Meanwhile, Zhou Qiang put the emphasis once again on judicial professionalization in his first public speech as newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court. Based on his words at least, it would appear that the controversial motto of the “Three Supremes,” which prioritizes party interests over the Constitution and law, is finally put to rest.

Rule by Lawyers

Other signs that bode well for the rule of law in China. At their inauguration, incoming President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both solemnly pledged that “We will be true to the Constitution,” a promise never openly made by any of the leaders in the history of the People’s Republic. The contrast is all the sharper when viewed in a historical context: half a century ago, President Liu Shaoqi waved his Constitution helplessly and futilely in front of the militant red guards; the supreme law of the land was incapable of protecting even the head of state at that time. It is virtually inconceivable that Xi or Li would permit or face such misfortune nowadays. Unlike Chairman Mao, who once proudly claimed to journalist Edgar Snow that he was above the law, both Xi and Li have degrees in that very subject (although more on this below).

There is more. During the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference earlier this year, among the media headlines were reports on just how many of the national leaders have a background in law. In fact, seven out of the 25 members of the Politburo were reported as either holding a degree in law or as having received legal training. This has been widely appreciated by both the state media and Chinese netizens as a propitious sign for the rule of law in China. Some even declare that China is now entering an era of rule by lawyers.

Whether or not the rule of law can be conflated with rule by lawyers is worth debating. But many Chinese do have good reason to celebrate and be hopeful this time. Many mainland Chinese are convinced that a salient feature of more mature and advanced nations is that they are led by lawyers. Chinese need not look to distant examples like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy or Tony Blair; the two most recent leaders of Taiwan are inspiration enough. Chinese legal scholars often make a historic comparison, noting that more than half of the American founding fathers were lawyers whereas none of the founders of the PRC were trained in law. So a Chinese desire for some of the critical ingredients of the rule of law is not just a recent phenomenon.

As such, the rise of legal education and the emergence of social segments with a legal background in China is sure to be welcomed. Thirty years ago, China had only a handful of law schools and no more than 1000 law graduates each year. Now there are more than 600 law schools producing 150,000 freshly minted legal professionals every year. The total number of practicing lawyers in China has jumped from 8,571 in 1981 to around 230,000 today. And lawyers have made their presence in Chinese public life increasingly felt. Today, 3,976 serve as deputies of the people’s congresses or members of the people’s political consultative conferences at varying levels. Among them, 16 are national deputies and 22 are national members. Ordinary Chinese might hope that these lawyers will bring to policymaking not only legal expertise but, more importantly, a deep commitment to justice. Certainly that is the hope for national leaders with a legal background.

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