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China opts for ‘Rule of Law’; By M V Rappai 

Updated: Feb 4, 2023


Image Courtesy: China Briefing


C3S Paper No. 2078


              The all powerful polit bureau (PB) of the Communist Party of China (CPC) met on 30th September 2014, on the eve of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and took a series of vital decisions concerning the Party and the state. One of the decision was to hold the fourth plenary session of the 18th CPC Central Committee on October 20 -23, 2014. Accordingly, this session discussed mainly the “rule of law” as its central theme. Keeping in view of the ongoing struggle for more democracy in Hong Kong, a major economic hub of China, and the growing aspirations of the people all across China, this was a very significant session. The outcome of the session will have far reaching consequences for the people of China and the world at large.


               A statement released after the meeting further clarified that ‘rule of law’ is a must if the “country wants to build a prosperous society in an all round way, rejuvenate the nation, comprehensively deepen reform, and improve socialism with Chinese characteristics and the Party’s governance capability.” These aspirations resonate well with the campaigns launched by the Party under the leadership of Xi Jinping so far.


               Immediately after Xi took power in November 2012 he announced his intention to clean up the Party first and launched a nationwide “mass line” campaign, this was mainly targeted at Party functionaries and organs including the powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Simultaneously the Party started a nationwide movement against corruption and a drive against ostentation. In the beginning itself Xi clarified that this anti corruption drive will catch both ‘tigers and flies’, which meant both high level functionaries and low level employees to be booked. The campaign by and large followed this path, personnel at the highest level at PB members down to the ordinary Party workers were investigated and action launched accordingly.


               Till July 2014, “more than 182,000 party officials at various levels have been investigated.” 32 leaders who rank at the level of vice minister or above, including five leaders who are members of the 18th Central Committee were arrested and investigations started against them. Such actions were unheard of earlier, normally at the highest echelons of the Party, the corruption of the personnel were either condoned or the person were removed quietly.


                As on last July the Party membership grown to nearly 87 million from its original 50 members in 1921. This year saw an unprecedented drop by 1.3 percent, this is mainly attributed to strict vetting process. When ‘mass line’ campaign was launched people compared this to some of the ‘criticism’ and ‘self criticism’ drives organised by Mao in his hey days. However, Xi Jinping with his full control over the Party machinery was serious about this drive. He wanted to stop and reverse the alienation process set in some sections of Chinese people.


                In the end, the “mass line” movement lasted over fifteen months, the Party came out with some staggering statistics. During this period, “China removed 162,629 surplus staff on the government payroll and retrieved 114,418 excessive vehicles used for regular government affairs. It also halted the construction of 2,580 official buildings deemed unnecessary. More than 386,000 cases were uncovered concerning the infringement of the people’s interests in the fields such as house removal, work safety and medical care, with over 200,000 officials punished. 84,000 officials were found to have assumed posts in companies and some 63,000 of them have been ordered to quit.”


               As per published material, the decisions of the fourth Plenary session can change the way the Party and administration functions as well as the lives of a vast number of ordinary Chinese people as well. However, the overall target of the CPC’s current drive to advance rule of law is to forge a system serving “the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics” and build a country under “the socialist rule of law”.


           This catch-all phrase, “with Chinese characteristics” need to be understood correctly, it clearly means that the pre-eminent position of Party will remain unaltered and the final authority to interpret ‘law’ will be under the direct control of the Party. Yet, one of the key reforms proposed in the promised legal reform would be to categorically assuring more independence to judges and “limiting local officials’ influence over courts and cases”. In order to achieve this aim the new regulations will shift the appointment authority and budgetary controls of judges and courts to the Provincial governments. This will certainly ensure the investigation and judicial process at grass root levels.


           The emphasis on ‘rule of law’ and the speedy implementation of reform of judiciary needs to be seen from the larger question of the legitimacy of CPC as the ruling party of China. Based on arrangements made at the 18th Party congress of the CPC in November 2012, it began various activities for cultivating closer ties with the people. After taking over the charge of the party, Xi Jinping done a serious analysis of the state of the party and concluded that the Party is getting alienated from the masses, in order to keep the position of CPC as the ruling party of China he started a campaign to end corruption and eradicate the reasons for such estrangement of the party. Concerned departments of the Party ascertained that party has lost touch with the masses mainly due to corrupt practices of its cadres and their bureaucratic ways of functioning.


           In order to correct such practices the Party launched a campaign against ‘ostentation and extravagance’ in party and concerned government departments. Then the Party Politburo adopted a set of ‘Regulations on Strictly Enforcing Thrift and Fighting Waste in Party and Government Departments’.


           The top Party leadership launched a long “mass line” education campaign in June 2013 and concluded in Sept 2014. This campaign was mainly to stress the fight against the four evils identified by the Party, the evils of ‘formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance’.


        This plenary session endorsed the CPC’s previous decision to revoke the primary membership of the three senior officials, Li Dongsheng, Jiang Jiemin and a serving People’s Liberation Army Lt. General Yang Jinshan, who earlier served as Tibet Military District Commander and a close associate of the disgraced Bo family. Some reports also linked Yang to the massive promotion rackets for money run by the former CMC Vice Chairman General Xu Caihou.


        The current resolve of the CPC to uphold ‘rule of law’ has to be viewed from the larger perspective from China’s domestic issues like more demand for accountability from their authorities for rule based institutions in the country including in its Special Administrative Regions like Hong Kong. After the plenum, Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Oct 24, in a signed article exhorted the  international community to reaffirm their commitment to maintaining world peace and international rule of law to commemorate the United Nations Day.


          Within a week after the fourth Plenum, in an unprecedented move the Party leadership convened the political work conference of its Central Military Commission (CMC) at Gutian, a former revolutionary base in Fujian province. The political work conference of CMC, held on October 31, at the same venue from where Mao Zedong set the tone for ideological and political work of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in last century, in December 1929. During the current meeting CMC chairman and Party general secretary Xi Jinping reiterated Party’s decision to run PLA according to law and to keep the troops under “CPC’s absolute command”. Xi also reminded the participants, including all the top brass of PLA, that “the Party commands the gun”.


                This meeting came after significant revelations about corruption at the top levels of Army. Recently the Chinese authorities announced the removal of three senior level military officers, General Xu Caihou, formerly Vice Chairman of the CMC and a politburo member of the Party, the highest decision making body of the CPC. It is alleged that he sold ‘military ranks’ for money. Along with Xu, his confidant and a former deputy logistics chief of PLA Lt. General Gu Junshan, was also stripped of his rank and placed under arrest.


                  It is alleged that both made large sums of money through bribes and sale of military land. The money looted was shared with few other military and political top brass. The last Party plenum also announced the removal of Lt. General Yang Jinshan, who earlier served as Tibet Military District Commander, from the Party Central Committee. Gen. Yang was a close associate of the disgraced Bo family as well as also linked to Xu Caihou. These cases are now linked to Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign against both “tigers” and “flies” in military, Party and the administration. All these moves are now connected to Party’s efforts to establish a nation that upholds the “rule of law”.


                 In a subsequent administrative order to check such malpractices in armed forces, the CMC has taken over the auditing mechanism of PLA under its direct control, which was earlier operated under the Logistics department.


           Finally, the communiqué called on all Party members to help implement the CPC CC’s major decisions of “comprehensively deepening reform and promoting rule of law and have the “strategic willpower” to maintain sustained and sound economic development, improve people’s livelihoods, clear up undesirable work style and be strict with its members”. One has to watch how the Party and administration under the collective leadership of Xi Jinping is going to implement these reform measures in the future.


 (The writer, Mr M.V.Rappai, is Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.Email:rappai@gmail.com)

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