On Second Thought: China Celebrates First Constitution Day

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Originally published by The Wall Street Journal on December 4, 2014

Roughly two years ago, free-speech protests outside the offices of a celebrated Chinese newspaper sparked a government crackdown on proponents of constitutionalism. Today, China’s government is leading the celebrations to mark its first national Constitution Day.

The seeming about-face illustrates how slippery the language of politics has become at a time when the Communist Party is working to bolster its status as the country’s sole source of authority.

Mr. Xi kicked off the Constitution Day events Wednesday with a call for more awareness of the constitution and better understanding of the role of law. The party newspaper People’s Daily published a list of suggestions how to celebrate the day, including a proposal from one professor to run quizzes, theater productions and allegiance oaths. The nation’s schoolchildren were told to read the constitution, according to state media reports.

The goal of Constitution Day is to “bring the spirit of the Constitution deeper into people’s hearts” and make it a matter of “common belief,” said an editorial in Thursday’s People’s Daily.

The celebration of the constitution marks surprising return to a position the party appeared to have earlier thrust aside.

Shortly after taking power in late 2012, Mr. Xi spoke forcefully of the need to protect and implement the constitution, which guarantees a wide range of individual rights but carries little authority. But a few weeks later, when the editors of a well-read Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekly, wrote a New Year’s message building on that idea under the headline “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism,” propaganda officials altered the editorial’s language by striking references to constitution.

The incident sparked protests in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou and led to a sustained crackdown on dissent in which many of the country’s most prominent rule-of-law activists were either detained or jailed.

As recently as September this year, the party had all but banned discussion of the constitution in official media, according to an analysis by Qian Gang of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.  But by October’s party plenary session, Beijing reversed course, concluding that the nation should be ruled “in accord with the constitution.” Plans for Thursday’s holiday were set at the plenum.

The change-of-heart echoes the introduction of democracy and human rights into official speech in the years following the violent suppression of student protests in 1989.

“This kind of language is a battlefield,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch. “The party is trying to seize control over the meaning of these terms, and it’s very good at it. It has this entire propaganda machinery it can use to that end.”

China’s constitution, like similar documents in the West, protects freedom of speech, media, assembly and demonstration, as well as religion and criticism. It also ensures individual privacy of citizens, worker safety and the equality of women and men.

Yet caveats are broad: Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, in exercising their freedoms and rights, may not infringe upon the interests of the State, of society or of the collective.

It’s the fuzzy definition of infringement of state interests that has landed constitutionalism advocates in jail over the past year, including in the run-up to Constitution Day.

Last week, authorities detained several activists associated with the Beijing-based Transition Institute, a now-shuttered liberal think tank that conducted research into legal reform, according to the group China Human Rights Defenders. The institute’s founder, legal activist Guo Yushan, was detained on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” last month.

Earlier this year in January, a Beijing court sentenced one of the country’s foremost advocates of constitutionalism, Yale-trained legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, to four years in jail on charges of disturbing public order.

“What they mean when they talk about rule of law and the constitution is the use of the law for the party to maintain control,” said Ms. Wang.

Yet in talking the talk, the party risks eventually being forced to walk it, experts say.

While October’s plenary session on legal reform may have disappointed by failing to produce concrete institutional reforms, “it has stimulated greater interest and ferment among the country’s increasingly sophisticated citizens,” veteran legal scholar Jerome Cohen wrote in November. “Even the current repressive administration cannot indefinitely afford to ignore a rising demand for government under law.”

– James T. Areddy and Josh Chin. Follow James on Twitter at @jamestareddy

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