The past few years have witnessed impressive improvements in all these areas in China. The Open Government Information Regulation turns five this year and all central and local governments now have websites with ever more content. In line with the 2000 Legislation Law, public consultation is becoming the fashion in drafting major national laws, such as the Property Law, Labour Contract Law and Social Security Law. Press conferences are held more frequently by more departments not only in response to scandals and crisis but also to communicate, justify and explain specific decisions. Zhou Qiang, the recently installed president of the Supreme People's Court, has earned praise for his innovative work in enhancing participatory governance in Hunan, where he used to be the governor.
Still, it is not a time to be complacent. According to national surveys conducted by Peking University and the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, both national and local governments fall short of strictly fulfilling their legal obligations to publish information, especially those concerned with budget and finance. There are also times when it takes a mass protest to awaken a local authority to the fact that the public needs be informed and heard before large-scale chemical industrial projects get approved. More interesting and subtly, as Chinese officials become increasingly media-savvy, they pick up PR tactics very quickly, perhaps from their training at the Kennedy School. This has nothing to do with reasoned persuasion, and again Li knows this best as he once was a criminal defense lawyer himself: you cannot win a case just by offering sound bites in front of the judge. It has been made clear that China has entered an age of reason and even the highest authority, the Communist Party’s leadership is now subject to scrutiny. The recent debate about constitutionalism in China is a good example. Though it is worrisome that several Party-run journals and newspapers have denounced the concept of constitutionalism as being too Western and capitalistic to suit China, their opponents, notably constitutional law professors from Renmin University, have been able to openly refute this line and argue that there is no intrinsic contradiction between constitutionalism and socialist China under the Party leadership. They may not go as far as many would like to see and their interlocutors still seem to lack much substantive argument beyond official party lines. But in the absence of any final judgment imposed from above, their open debate may actually mark the beginning of an era in which the authorities get that they need to persuade the people.
Admittedly, the above expectations about self-reflection and limitations by superior, sound value judgments about law, as well as reason and persuasion in public life go well beyond the sphere of law with profound implications for accountability, transparency and democracy in China. This is justifiably so since legal reform in today’s China cannot be isolated from – and in fact requires – political reform in a broader and deeper sense. Bearing in mind the possibility of imperfect realization and the need for institutional change, we have reasons to expect legally educated Chinese leaders and their non-lawyer colleagues to lead the country forward on these three fronts, not merely by virtue of their legal training but also to fulfill their promises.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Chun Peng is currently a DPhil candidate in law at the University of Oxford. He holds a LL.B. from Peking University and a MJur from Oxford. He is also a research fellow at the Centre for Public Participation Studies and Supports at Peking University.