China Power

For China, Constitution Day Comes Without Constitutionalism

Xi Jinping wants to celebrate China’s constitution without going too far into the realm of political reform.

Shannon Tiezzi
For China, Constitution Day Comes Without Constitutionalism
Credit: Xi Jinping image from Kaliva / Shutterstock

Thursday marked the 32nd anniversary of China’s current constitution. In previous years, the day passed with little fanfare, but not in 2014. On December 4, China celebrated its first-ever National Constitution Day, a sign of Xi Jinping’s new emphasis on the “rule of law” in the wake of the Fourth Plenum.

In fact, the idea for Constitution Day itself came from the Fourth Plenum, which highlighted the role the constitution should play in establishing the rule of law in China. During the Fourth Plenum, Xi declared that “fully implementing the Constitution is the primary task and basic work in building a socialist nation ruled by law, and that the Constitution is the country’s basic law and the general rule in managing state affairs.” To underline this belief, the plenum recommended that December 4 be declared “Constitution Day” to better publicize the role China’s constitution should play in governing the country.

Speaking ahead of the ceremonies to mark the new anniversary, Xi reiterated that “the Constitution’s authority is paramount.” Xi has made the constitution a central part of his push for strengthening the rule of law in China, a fact highlighted by the extensive Chinese media coverage of Constitution Day. “For any country committed to the rule of law, a constitution is a necessary foundation to govern the country in line with law,” one Xinhua op-ed declared.

Constitution Day was designed to promote popular awareness of the constitution, according to Chinese media. A commentary in People’s Daily said that the constitution should become a “common belief” among China’s people, guiding their thoughts and actions. Implementation of the constitution remains weak in part because of a lack of awareness, the piece argued. Another Xinhua op-ed also bemoaned the low legal awareness of China’s population, and the official abuses of power that occur in this environment. In a visible display of the new push to educate China’s population, signs hanging from overpasses in Beijing urged citizens to “promote the constitutional spirit and establish the constitution’s authority.”

This educational push, however, will inevitably raise public expectations regarding the rule of law in China, and particularly the implementation of the Chinese constitution – which, among other things, guarantees citizens the right to vote and stand for election, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of demonstration. There’s a reason that the Chinese government has been quick to silence those who call too vocally for Western-style constitutionalism – fully implementing these guarantees would mean implementing drastic political reforms that the Chinese Communist Party is simply not ready for. For Xi and company, the rule of law is an essential tool for adding backbone to economic reforms, and for reinvigorating public trust in government systems. It is not meant as a gateway for political reform, but it’s a fine line to walk given the liberal language used in China’s constitution.

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During the Fourth Plenum, Beijing promised to increase implementation of the constitution and supervision of government bodies who may not be following constitutional provisions. Yet the Constitution Day push contained a note of caution, reminding people that China’s progress toward rule of law will be slow. “China have been working toward establishing a ‘modern nation’ since the 19th century,” the Xinhua op-ed said, including movement toward the rule of law as part of a long, painstaking historical process that stretched back 200 years. In other words, don’t expect the rule of law, or full implementation of China’s constitution, to spring up overnight.