China's reformers should start 2013 by implementing the constitution

Hu Shuli says such a move would create a consensus, given the strong but divided desire for change, while protecting everyone's basic rights

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 3:50am


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With signs of a renewed push for reforms raising expectations, 2013 marks a fresh beginning for China. Its leadership transition in the milestone year of 2012 ushered in a new political era. Over the past two months, the team led by party general secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly signalled it would speed up reforms.

When the changeover is completed in March, a new batch of local and central government leaders will be in charge. People have high hopes that this infusion of new blood will help create a mainstream political culture that values high-minded aspirations, pragmatism and charisma, as well as a political model that rejects corruption and secrecy.

For these reasons, Chinese reforms are entering a new phase. The continuous and fierce struggle over the direction and substance of reform that has gripped the country since 2004 seems to be reaching a turning point, thanks in no small part to the Bo Xilai scandal. We saw how the path that once led to the Cultural Revolution would take us to yet another dead end. As Xi said, "conflicts arising from the reform and open policy can only be resolved by solutions found through further reform".

It clear that there's still no consensus on reform with some declaring "reform is dead". While the desire for change is strong throughout society, views are divided on the specifics. Resentment festers and officials weigh up whether to leave China.

There are many reasons for this. Chief among them is the existence of interest groups today that cherry-pick the reforms that suit them: they drag their feet on reforms that would benefit the people and the nation, but become champions of reform when the change would fatten their pockets and increase their rent-seeking opportunities. These groups muddle the debate, making consensus an impossibility, and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Decision-makers are in a bind, and reforms stall. Despite their hopes for reform, people will no longer be impressed by mere slogans, and will wait to see what measures would be taken. The biggest challenge for the new leaders is to navigate a course of action given the conflicting interests.

History teaches that to seek change, we must first find the leverage point. In China, common ground can be found by honouring the country's constitution. Thus, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the 1982 constitution, the leadership pledged that China would be governed according to its constitution.

A country's constitution spells out its founding principles. China's 1982 constitution defines the rights and obligations of citizens and affirms the principles of limiting the exercise of power. In reality, however, these principles are not practised.

Turning the words in the constitution into action requires several steps. In China, while the authorities claim they recognise the constitutional rights of citizens, the laws and regulations they draft do not reflect this; while officials say they honour civic rights, they abuse them in practice, leaving ordinary Chinese bereft of the protection they are entitled to. The result is, 30 years after the publication of the constitution, many rights remain a pipe dream.

No one would disagree that a constitution lays out the fundamental laws of a nation. Thus, the best way to forge a consensus over reforms is to implement the constitution. Reform, after all, is about perfecting the system. Implementing the constitution is an act of reform, not revolution.

At a congress held to mark the 30th anniversary of the constitution, Xi pledged to fully implement it.

"The life and authority of the constitution lie in its implementation," he said. "We need to persevere in upholding its implementation." He urged the Communist Party to "operate within the constitution and the law" and said "the greatness of the constitution lies in the true faith the people have in it". Only by implementing it, he said, can it be a document of the people.

China should be governed by the rule of law and the constitution, in keeping with the times. Full implementation of the constitution should be made a mid-term goal of reform, and one that could be supported by all because every Chinese will benefit from its implementation. Not only ordinary citizens but even corrupt officials will see their basic rights protected if the constitution is honoured. Only by respecting the constitution can China achieve stability.

The implementation of the constitution must proceed, even though interest groups are likely to oppose action. Getting vested interests to reflect on the errors of their ways, recognise that they have done wrong and willingly rectify their mistakes will happen only in a fairy tale. Instead, the leadership needs to, as Xi said, "bravely take on the challenges, overcome the ideological barriers and dismantle the interest groups".

China cannot afford to delay reform. As Vice-Premier Li Keqiang said, a person "can avoid making mistakes by doing nothing, but this will not allow him to escape historical responsibility".

Political leaders responsible for the future of the country must now seize the opportunity for reform. They must not disappoint the people and ruin their trust.

So, our greatest hope for 2013 is to let the concept of running a country by its constitution blossom.