When, on 18 October, the 19th Congress of the Communist Party opened in Beijing, the term “rule of law” – was pronounced 19 times by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The goal of “promoting a law-based government” also appeared among the 14 points the leader of the People’s Republic referred to in order to illustrate the meaning of “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”: the ideological contribution of Xi Jinping was incorporated into the Constitution of the Communist Party.
Beijing’s leadership has been dealing with the concept of “yifa zhiguoIt” since the mid-1990s that in. Literally, it means “guiding the country through the law”, but in official documents it is approximately translated with rule of law. The underlying idea behind this type rhetoric is that a dynamic economy and a vibrant society as the Chinese need a reliable and transparent legal system. At the same time, however, the Chinese authorities are unwilling to relinquish political control over to courts and to the security or justice systems. In short, the rule of law “with Chinese characteristics” does not mean – as the liberal tradition prescribes – to setup an independent instrument that limits and controls the power of politics. “The rule of law should only be advanced by the rule of the party“ the Global Times clarified on October 17. In China, in short, the Communist Party remains above the law.
In fall 2014, for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic, a plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was devoted to the rule of law and the application of the law. It was the occasion for Beijing to better describe what is meant by yifa zhiguo. According to documents by the assembly, the aim of the Chinese central authorities has been to emphasize the need to apply uniform rules and regulations throughout the People’s Republic of China. In those same months, the Chinese press had devoted a great deal of attention clamorous judicial errors: Chinese citizens sentenced to years of imprisonment – sometimes even to the death penalty – at the end of trials where the law had been arbitrarily enforced .
When preparing for the legal reform guidelines, the Chinese authorities had clear objectives: firstly to form a class of justice practitioners – judges, prosecutors, lawyers – more prepared and competent, but also subtract the courts to the control of the local authorities. This explains the pilot projects for the establishment of district courts, whose jurisdiction goes beyond the boundaries of the provinces, thus limiting the power of intervention of local governments in court decisions. A move that limits the abuses of power in the provinces on one hand and which in the past have been at the center of more discontent among the population but at the same time helps Beijing focus its control over the handling of justice.
There are also reasons for cautious optimism. In recent years, the number of capital sentences in China has halved, although the total number of death sentences remains a state secret. Beijing also approved the internal regulations to limit “illegal practices” – especially the use of torture – during police interrogations and it abolished the dreadful re-education system of forced labour with which a person could be deprived of liberty without passing a court. However, in Beijing the rule of law is first and foremost a source of legitimation for the Communist Party and a tool to control and ‘social stability’.