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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

China’s Constitutional Amendments: Historically Significant


President Hu Jintao (r) Premier Wen Jiaboa (l)The genesis of the recent historical amendments to the Chinese constitution concerning Human Rights and private ownership of property may well have occurred at a September 29 2003 meeting of the Politburo.

According to an article by Philip P Pan (Chinese Leadership Speaks of Reform but How Quickly?- Washington Post 14 March 2004) at this meeting two Law academics were invited to present a briefing on options for the reform of China's political system to the members of the Chinese politburo. As a result this was more than likely the formal introduction to the politburo of the thinking of the then new President and Premier Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

It was the formal beginning of what Pan calls a 'searching for a new political model for China'.

The new kids on the bloc Hu and Wen had sensed, as indubitably many others within the politburo had, that unless they effected change to the rigid and essentially corrupt political and judicial systems, that China, sooner rather than later, faced a potentially explosive political and social situation. A situation that not only would announce an end to the party but indubitably bring untold hardship, suffering and death to a large number of the Chinese people and unleashing a tide of events unimaginable as to it's scope and consequence.

This search for a model that will avoid this eventuality has two criteria. It must be able change the system for the better and it must, in doing so, maintain the power and hegemony of the Chinese Communist party.

Pan quotes Li Lam, one of the two academics to address the Politburo on that day, as saying 'The bottom line of any political reform is that it must maintain the leadership of the communist party. The question is how we can make the Party, more clean, more honest, more efficient and more powerful?'

It is obvious then that this new system or model of government must necessarily fall somewhere between the two extremes of a western/capitalist/democratic model and the maxims of Marx and Lenin.

It can not totally embrace a democratic system because such a system would not guarantee the predominance of the Communist party nor, it is believed, could such a system adequately handle the uniqueness and the considerable number of socio-economic problems that arise from such a huge and diverse population. Especially one facing rapid economic transformation as well.

The latter is compounded by the fact that a truly democratic system is completely foreign to the history and culture of the Chinese people. You only have to look at the relative failure of true democracy in the Central Asian Republics to get a feel for that. They, like the Chinese, had never experienced democracy in all their histories either as modern states or as clan/tribal communities.

As the Party searches for or attempts to evolve a new system Hu and Wen have at least been 'seen' to be effecting change both internationally and at home.

In an article in the LA Times ('Populism Percolates in China' LA Times 13 March 2004) author Ching-Ching Li cites a number of events where Hu and Wen have sidestepped historical precedents and have attempted introduce a degree of 'populism' into the leadership and therefore the party.

Visits to farmers, miners and Aids sufferers. Tours of SARS effected areas, emphasis on the plight of rural and migrant workers, crackdown on official corruption and perks. Release of political 'prisoners of conscience' and floated reforms to the sentencing and prosecution policies and procedures of the judiciary.

All in all having a decided 'glasnost' feel about it

This populism is seen as an important change in the style of the Government far more akin to the western democratic models of Presidents and Prime Ministers than the heretofore detached attitude of previous leaders.

Ching-Ching Li believes that this new attitude is being taken on board by the Chinese people: 'Most Chinese have come to see these acts not as merely public relations gestures but as genuine signs of change' he states

This would mean that ideological slogans of the government such as 'Wei renmin fuwu' (`Serve the people') are being listened to and believed, at least to the extent that they evidence a desire to change.

On the international level the Chinese leadership has travelled tirelessly on the foreign circuit to 'sell' the 'New China' and get the message of 'heping jueqi' (peaceful rise' or 'peaceful ascendancy') across to it's regional neighbours and concerned major powers. This too has not gone unnoticed at home.

Even last years first manned space flight was symbolic of this new breed of Government, notwithstanding that it's timing was quite co-incidental though nonetheless providential.

As icing on the cake we have the recently completed National People's Congress which, by and large, turned out to be a resounding political success for the ruling regime.

At that congress two important amendments to the constitution were 'rubber stamped' into law, namely the right to private ownership of property and the enshrinement of the concept of Human Rights.

It is amazing that such important constitutional amendments have either gone totally unremarked or acknowledged only with a grain of salt by a majority of commentators and analysts. The United States for example a long time critic of Chinese Human rights policy has been silent on the issue, no congratulations no well wishes, nothing.

Reporting generally has varied from a straight reporting of the facts, to half hearted analysis providing conclusions more often than not that the amendments are mere 'window dressing' and that by reasons of convention or legal effectiveness are worthless.

This latter conclusion may well be true. There is certainly not a lot of positive history of the constitutional 'guarantees' that existed before today. You need only look at the 'guarantee' on religious freedom to find support for these arguments, however to be fair these were drafted in a much different era then we face now and previous regimes have been a little harder than this one seems to be.

Despite the arguments as to their ineffectiveness, the importance of these amendments must be seen in greater terms than just their actionability for legal protection or redress.

Their historical significance at this juncture lies not in the mechanics but in the theory, in the concept.

It does not 'matter' whether a poor farmer from Gansu is unlikely to get past first base in any action brought under these clauses, it matters only that he thinks that he has this protection and could if he wished.

It does not 'matter' that millions of Chinese may never benefit from the private ownership laws by virtue of their impoverishment, it matters that they see that their children and grandchildren may.

What matters to them will be the 'concept' and the 'expectation' rather than the actuality.

The beauty of freedom is not in actually having to exercise it but 'believing' that you can if you wish. By a person 'believing' that he has a freedom then that person's whole attitude changes on a host of planes.

By 'believing' attitudes change, horizons broaden and expectations increase. These constitutional amendments, whether they are real in intent or mere sops to the populace, will without fail raise the expectations of the Chinese people.

Whether it realises it or not, the CCP has put in place a catalytic factor that will impel them, willingly or not, to implement further changes. Once the bar has been raised it can only rise, it can not so easily come down.

Despite what has happened over the last twelve months in China, and despite the positives as a result of the passing of those two amendments, the Chinese will not march on to full democracy in the western sense, nor should it be expected to. It is not in the nature of the party or for that matter the people. They will however evolve a governmental model that will sit much closer to western ideals then Marxist-Leninist ones.

It will not happen overnight you only have to witness the contradictions seen every day in policy administration to understand that there is an educational process to be undertaken. The old "party hacks' will have to die out, the current leadership will have to sell these 'New China' ideals, their children must be taught acceptance and then and only then will their their grandchildren be raised knowing nothing of the old wiles.

We are not talking therefore five years, not even ten, we are talking at least two generations, however, barring anything cataclysmic, it will happen and these amendments will one day be judged rightly for the true historic importance they deserve.