WASHINGTON, October 27, 2014 – The trappings of secrecy again surrounded China’s Fourth Plenum, as usual. And as usual, the agenda was leaked months before the Plenum to manage public expectations.
China’s current leaders are five generations from the revolution, and they are anything but revolutionary. Revolutionaries act in unexpected, unpredictable ways and are full of surprises. Today’s China is a modern, media savvy society run by true politicians, not true members of any revolution.
As expected, the recently-ended Plenum focused on legal matters. During the meeting, the Chinese leadership again upheld the constitution and resolved to run the country according to the rule of law.
Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that the state cannot “allow unfair trials as they hurt the trust of the people, and harms their interests.” This statement would seem to pave the way for independent judiciaries, not tied to the Communist party. Xi has made anti-corruption a major pillar of his administration, saying, “if corruption is not swiftly dealt with, social unrest and the toppling of the government would be inevitable.”
The question now is whether President Xi is sincere in his efforts or whether he will use his anti-corruption campaign as a way to repress political dissent and week out his opponents.
For now, observers see an opportunity for the lowest level judges to express independence, which itself would be a major change.
Yet some will question why Xi cannot implement an independent judiciary across the board.
Change in China is always slow. There are many conflicting variables at play, and man levels of bureaucracy to overcome. When protesters have tried to bring rapid change, the country has experienced a significant backlash which ultimately stifled reform. Pro-democratic protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were crushed, ending the hopes of that movement. Likewise, pro-Communist demonstrators took to the street to protest economic reforms put forward by President Deng Xiaoping.
In China, change must happen slowly or risk setbacks. Those who opposed economic reforms by Deng claimed he was betraying Communist principals and opening the way for corruption. Protest leaders now hold senior government positions, and continue to guard China’s Communist history carefully. They likely will see any swift change as an insult and will mobilize support against it.
Forward movement must carefully balance the views of all players, all entrenched parties.
China found itself in a similar position 2 500 years ago. Lao Tzu the founder of Taoist thought, had argued for small government with sayings like “governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish, too much handling will spoil it” and, “I take no action and the people enrich themselves.” Confucius emerged and argued that individuals owe allegiance to the state over themselves, and that the state must have a large role in a person’s life.
China must once again choose between Lao Tzu and Confucius, between the free market and the fascism they are well on their way to achieving.
The Chinese government is obviously aware of the contradictions between Communist thought and the global economic order. China is a major economic player, despite operating under its Communist ideals. Leaders also almost certainly understand the benefits of an independent judiciary and a free society, but are also wary of change that could push the country backward.
Perhaps it is time for China to reinvigorate its revolution and for leaders to act as revolutionary’s. China needs to take revolutionary steps towards a more free the market and toward justice. There will still be a role for government, but it will not be the same role. By implementing equality before the law and diminishing state interest, corruption will fall. Failure to make change will plummet China not only into a disastrous foreign policy, but potentially into economic difficulty.
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