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China’s Party Law gets sharper teeth
An independent legal system is an essential element in China’s political, social and economic evolution. Wen Jiabao has spoken several times of the urgent need for legal reform. But reality is pointing the other way.
The legal regression we analysed in our report “The costs of China’s legal regression” set in after a brief period of reform at the start of the century. Hu Jintao has linked “administration through the law” with “strengthening and improving Party leadership”. The Chief Justice has instructed judges that their first duty was to strengthen the Party.
Now an announcement by the Justice Ministry has ordered lawyers to take a loyalty oath to the Party. This was needed, the ministry said, to “firmly establish among the vast circle of lawyers faith in socialism with Chinese characteristics ... and effectively improve the quality of lawyers’ political ideology”. The oath reads: “I promise to faithfully fulfil the sacred mission of socialism with Chinese characteristics ... loyalty to the motherland, its people, and uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”
Uniformity rules. The order follows a crackdown on lawyers who take on briefs involving human rights or other controversial issues. It is part of a broader campaign to enforce uniformity. The Party Plenum last October issued a document entitled “Deepening Cultural System Reforms, Promoting the Great Development and Prosperity of Socialist Culture”. It aims to bring the media under tighter control by measures such as requiring people using social media to register under their real name.
Hu Jintao’s speech at the Plenum read like a throwback to the Maoist era. “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” he said. “We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.”
Xi weighs in. Xi Jinping, their heir apparent, has come in with a call to safeguard “Party purity” from dangerous external influences. "Today some people join the party not because they believe in Marxism and want to devote themselves to Socialism with Chinese characteristics ... but because becoming a member brings them personal benefits," he said in a speech to the Party School, which he heads, on 1 March. "If the thoughts of members and cadres of the party are not pure, their ideas cannot be firm, and their political positions can easily change."
He earlier told university authorities to “adopt firmer and stronger measures to maintain harmony and stability”. Young lecturers, he pointed out, must be “instructed” in the correct way of thinking and more of them should be recruited into the Party. “Daily management of the institutions should be stepped up to create a good atmosphere for the success of the Party Congress,” he added.
Liu Yandong, a Politburo member and Hu associate with responsibility for education, says that university presidents will be held responsible for political work in their colleges and that the Party will increase its influence in grass-roots educational establishments. Legal education is being brought into line with promotion of the “Socialist rule of law” and policies to buttress the Party. Now comes the lawyers’ oath.
All this falls into the immediate context of implementing control mechanisms during the leadership transition period. But on the legal front it is likely to have a longer-term effect by weeding out lawyers who feel unable to take the oath – or by producing a crop of lawyers who take it cynically and do not intend to apply it in their work – another addition to China’s growing the trust deficit.