Chinese scholar challenges party in constitutional debate

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

A recent Communist Party circular, warning officials of "dangerous western values," appears to have been challenged from inside the ranks of the party leadership in Beijing.

Those who have written the circular "consider the people's legitimate calls for reform as activities by hostile forces and 'dissidents' and thus wrongly estimating and analysing the situation," Yang Tianshi, a senior scholar and adviser, wrote in an essay shared online.

The Central Committee circular, briefing concerning the situation in the ideological sphere, or also known as "Document No 9," has caused concern among Chinese liberals. It suggests the Communist Party might have taken a more conservative, authoritarian path in the first months of Xi Jinping's presidency.

The document has not been published. Its content can only be deduced from reports on party cadre briefings, which appeared at the beginning of the month. These references have, however, mostly been promptly deleted from Chinese news portals, blogs and social media to avoid public debate. 

Cadres should "strengthen the guidance of public opinion, purify the Internet environment, convey more positive energy, bring more positive voices," the circular read, according to one such meeting reported in Xianyang in Shaanxi.

Yang, a 77-year-old historian known for his research on Chiang Kai-Shek, is a member of the Central Literature and History Institute, an advisory body of senior academics to the State Council. He has shared his views with an acquaintance, who uploaded the essay online, where it has quickly gained attention.

Yang argues that those who wrote the circular mistook calls for more respect and enforcements of rights guaranteed in the Chinese constitution as calls for "westernisation".

"For some time, people have called for the enactment and implementation of the constitution from 1982, to realise constitutional governance and have even called for the realisation of a 'dream of constitutional governance'," he writes.

"Many people have made suggestions in newspapers and on the internet, petitioned, jointly signed statements and even unfurled banners on the streets," he wrote. "I think, these are all legal, reasonable, legitimate expressions of concern (…) for the rightful leadership of the Communist Party."

China's courts currently cannot enforce freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, such as freedom of expression and of the press.

Xi Jinping raised hopes for change when he participated at a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the constitution on December 4. This was one of his first high-profile speeches after assuming the party leadership in November. 

"No organisation or individual has the privilege to overstep the constitution and the law, and any violation of the constitution and the law must be investigated," he reportedly said.

A month later, journalists with the liberal Southern Weekly went on strike in Guangzhou to protest a censor's deletion of their new year's editorial. This had alluded to Xi's speech and the "dream of constitutional governance".

In February, hundreds of intellectuals signed a petition urging China to ratify an international human rights treaty it signed in the 1990s, which reiterates some rights guaranteed in the Chinese constitution.

Over the last weeks, several state-run publications have issued scathing rebukes for such calls, saying they would lead to chaos and were aimed at copying a Western model. 

"Those who drafted document number nine fail to realise that those who demand the 'protection' and 'implementation' of the constitution refer to the (Chinese) constitution from 1982," writes Yang. They don't want "the American constitution, and also don't want to abolish the 1982 constitution and get another one."

"A country's citizens demand the protection and implementation of their own constitution, what's wrong with that? Why not?", writes Yang.

"An old intellectual can write these things, and it's great that he does it," said Wang Jiangsong, a philosophy professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing. "I can't."