China’s constitution debate hits a sensitive nerve

June 3, 2013

A National People's Congress delegate holds a book of China's constitution. (Cancan Chu/Getty Images)

BEIJING – After a country’s new leader proclaims the overriding authority of the constitution – a document that guarantees freedom of speech and press – it’s worth noting afterward when the same government heavily censors all discussion about that constitution.

That’s what’s happening in an ongoing debate in China over “constitutionalism,” a term the government’s propaganda officials have spent recent weeks trying to reign in.

Given the near constant international criticism of China on human rights, rule of law and authoritarian governance, it might surprise some even to learn China has a constitution.

President Xi Jinping, in one of his first speeches after assuming leadership of China and its ruling Communist Party, vowed, “No organization or individual has the privilege to overstep the Constitution and law.”

When Xi first took power in November, some Chinese eager for change were encouraged by his looser and friendlier style, seeing his words as a sign that political reforms may be coming. But the first skirmish came in January, when censors pulled an article titled “Dream of China, Dream of Constitutionalism” from the front page of an outspoken Chinese newspaper called Southern Weekend.

In following months, however, the discussion stayed alive on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. On Friday, more than 7 million posts contained the word “constitutionalism,” but by Monday morning, only 1.9 million were left, the rest apparently deleted by censors.

At the heart of the fight are different interpretations of what “constitutionalism” means in China. Some, like Tong Zhiwei, a professor at East China University of Political Science and Law, have used it to talk about a fuller implementation of China’s constitution and a way to “prescribe a limit to the party’s power.” Further on the spectrum are radical liberals who want to altogether change China’s one-party political system, in which the Communist Party rules all, and advocate a western-style constitutional government.

Concerned about keeping their grip on power, party leaders have pushed back against such interpretations in recent days, arguing through party journals and newspapers that the secret mission of constitutionalism talk is “to abrogate the leadership of the Communist Party and to overthrow the socialism regime,” as Party Construction journal put it on May 29.

According to the party journal Red Flag Manuscript, constitutionalist systems “only belong to capitalism and bourgeoisie dictatorship and not to socialist people’s democracy.”

Professors and intellectuals say the party has been circulating a list of “seven taboos” – topics they are banned from discussing in class. Many of those topics, they say, touch on the very same rights guaranteed by the constitution: freedom of speech, judicial independence, universal values, civil society, civil rights and past mistakes of the party.

The order was first described by Zhang Xuezhong, a professor at East China University of Political Science and Law, on his microblog, which was quickly deleted. But it has since been described by other professors. The document is difficult to confirm, intellectuals say, because, as with many sensitive party documents, the order is read out loud at meetings to prevent widespread circulation.

For younger teachers, the party has issued another document – made public last week by China’s Ministry of Education – that demands for intensified “ideological and political” training for college lecturers, including monitoring their online conversations.

“A small number of young teachers have confused political belief and fuzzy ideal and faith,” the document reads. “Teachers should be self-disciplined when lecturing in class and stop words and deeds that harm the national interest.”

Some observers have joked about the new rules on social media.

“I suggest we only lecture about how to dream a dream”, wrote Feng Wei, a Fudan University professor, on his microblog account.

Shanghai-based professor Yang Shiqun wrote, “You should be well-disciplined even when  you are dreaming a dream, for you cannot dream about the seven topics."

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Max Fisher · June 1, 2013