The fourth plenary session of the 18th CCP central committee took place from October 20 to October 23. Less than a month before the opening of the plenum, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted a politburo statement of September 29 as saying that the plenary session’s focus would be on improving the administration of law. At the center of that, according to the SCMP, would be a battle against corruption.
In July, Stanley Lubman, a lawyer and longtime observer of legal issues in China, wrote in the Wall Street Journal‘s (WSJ) China blog (China Realtime) that the CCP’s central leading group for judicial reform of the party and the “Supreme People’s Court” were signalling a serious intention to implement measures that could lead to a shift of power over finances and personnel in basic courts, from local governments and local “people’s congresses” to provincial governments. Pilot projects were planned in Shanghai, Guangdong, Jilin, Hubei, Hainan and Qinghai. If successful, these reforms could boost citizens’ chances to challenge local cadres over issues such as illegal land seizures or concealment of violations of product safety and environmental laws. However, this didn’t mean that courts would be insulated from pressures from those higher-level officials on their decision-making. Importantly, nothing in these reforms is aimed at diminishing Communist Party control over outcomes in the courts.
Ultimate CCP control reservation apart, Lubman’s article came across as sort of optimistic. Less so an article by Russell Leigh Moses, dean of academics and faculty at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, published on October 24. If the communique issued after the plenary session was something to go by, this was a plenum that wasn’t interested in engineering far-reaching changes to China’s legal system. China would move slowly, very slowly, suggests the headline.
That said, the term under the party’s leadership (党的领导 / 党的领导下), quoted from the communiqué by Moses as a reminder that the conception and implementation of law belongs only to the Communist Party, can’t have surprised any observer.
According to the Economist, the CCP’s new enthusiasm for the rule of law springs from the campaign against corruption – see first paragraph of this post, too (SCMP quote). The battle is old (Xi Jinping’s predecessor as party and state chairman, Hu Jintao, warned in November 2012 that corruption, if not tackled by politics, could prove fatal to the party.
The battle is even older than old. Shen Zewei, China reporter for the Singaporean daily Lianhe Zaobao (United Morning News), quoted a Taiwanese researcher, Lee Yeau-tarn, in 2009 that Chiang Kai-shek had been able to implement land reform in Taiwan, but not in the mainland, because the KMT had been intricately connected with the despotic gentry.
This suggests that even Moses’ forecast could prove overly optimistic for China.
The Economist’s November 1 edition, however, sees the glass half-full – or even more positively. After all, one of the weekly’s editorials argues, the constitution, emphasized by the CCP leadership,
enshrines property rights. Of the many thousands of “mass incidents” of unrest each year in rural China, 65% relate to disputes over the (often illegal) seizure of land by officials. Mr Xi wants to make it clear that their behaviour is not just illegal but also unconstitutional. That sounds scarier.
Farmland reform, which was at the focus of the 17h Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Third Plenary Session in 2008, back then under the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao leadership -, is also moving slowly, very slowly. And the fourth plenary session of this 18th central committee might be considered another push into the direction of a more just, and more efficient, use of land – six years later.