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Blocked protest, readings mark China's first Constitution Day

Mainland holds first Constitution Day to promote the primacy of the document but would-be demonstrators are detained by police in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 December, 2014, 2:51am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 December, 2014, 6:27pm
AFP

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The mainland marked its first national Constitution Day yesterday with readings at schools across the country, activities promoting the rule of law and the blocking of protests at Tiananmen Square.

The National People's Congress, the mainland's rubber-stamp legislature, last month designated December 4 as National Constitution Day to promote the document adopted in its present form on that date in 1982.

State broadcaster China Central Television showed footage of judicial employees swearing an oath to the constitution at Beijing's high court.

On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping said the constitution "guarantees the socialist path with Chinese characteristics", according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.

Schools across the nation were to hold readings of the constitution, according to an education ministry directive, and tables were set up on some central Beijing streets with posters and materials promoting the document.

Yet at Tiananmen Square, the vast public space in the heart of the city, citizens seeking to protest were blocked by police from doing so.

A middle-aged man was stopped and got into an altercation with officers at a security checkpoint after he tried to enter the square with a briefcase containing a pile of fliers.

One officer videotaped as another yelled at the man, grabbed him by the front of his coat and thrust him into a chair.

Half a dozen people were also seen being bundled by police into a van at the centre of the square, although it was unclear whether they were seeking to demonstrate.

Article 35 of the constitution states: "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration."

Yet the Communist Party maintains a tight grip on expression, with protests regularly quashed and human rights lawyers and activists coming under increasing pressure since Xi took power last year.

Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a specialist in China's political and legal systems at Baptist University, said the party's renewed promotion of the constitution was in part an effort to address the pressure being exerted by the nascent rights defence movement. In a December 2012 speech Xi emphasised the primacy of the constitution, but Cabestan noted that lawyers and other reformists who viewed his remarks as a call for greater judicial independence misinterpreted the leader's words.

"Some reformists and legal experts jumped on that occasion to launch this constitutionalism debate and try to push the limits of the system," he said. "They failed, and the result has been the arrest of a number of activists."

A conclave of top party leaders in Beijing last month made clear that "the constitution was under the leadership of the party", Cabestan said.