from Asia Unbound

Will China Continue to "Turn Against Law"?

Li Keqiang, right, shakes hands with China's Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang after Li was elected Vice Premier in Beijing on March 17, 2008.

July 31, 2012

Li Keqiang, right, shakes hands with China's Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang after Li was elected Vice Premier in Beijing on March 17, 2008.
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Mark Jia is an intern for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As speculation brims over China’s impending leadership succession, focus has centered on the political leanings of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, seniors leaders who are expected to secure the top posts in the Politburo’s all-powerful Standing Committee this fall. However, recent Party machinations over another committee position, the one that oversees the country’s legal and security institutions, offer potentially more revealing clues into China’s prospects for future reform.

The post is currently occupied by Zhou Yongkang, a former Minister of Public Security. Since his promotion in 2007, the iron-fisted security czar has championed a policy known as the “Three Supremes” (三个至上), which compels legal professionals to prioritize “Party interest” in executing their duties. This shift has serviced a broader campaign of “stability maintenance” that has induced a genuine backsliding in Chinese legal development, which legal expert Carl Minzner has dubbed China’s “turn against law.” Under this new campaign, central officials have exerted immense pressure upon local authorities to contain disputes and achieve “harmonious” resolution through mediation. The result is a set of distorted local incentives that privilege Party interest over legal rights and processes. In a system where institutions are already weak and legal consciousness low, such trends have been deeply alarming.

With Zhou set to retire this fall, it remains uncertain whether China’s “turn against law” will persist under new leadership. Interestingly, recent reports suggest that Zhou may have fallen into disrepute. An ally to Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s ousted Party Secretary, he had allegedly opposed Bo’s removal, angering his Politburo colleagues. Not long after, the Study Times, a publication of the Central Party School (headed by Xi Jinping), sharply criticized Zhou’s committee for usurping authority from other agencies. Senior leaders are now contemplating reducing the size of the Politburo Standing Committee from nine to seven, reassigning security and legal responsibilities to other positions. In light of all this, one might wonder whether Zhou’s declining political stock reflects changing Party commitments towards the rule of law.

Optimism here would be misplaced. For one, Zhou’s probable successor, Meng Jianzhu, does not exactly possess sterling rule of law credentials himself. A mechanical engineer, Meng, like Zhou, has never had any formal legal training, and, also like Zhou, comes from a senior position in the Ministry of Public Security—a department that has been decidedly skeptical of due process and the rule of law generally. Meng’s recent “three inquiries, three assessments” campaign, which was designed to improve the image of public security forces through “practical love-the-citizens activities,” was viewed by many as his own rather public campaign to succeed Zhou. Second, senior leaders have other reasons to be upset with Zhou, including his apparent early opposition to ousting Bo, as well as concerns over excessive concentrations of power under his rule. It seems less likely that their unhappiness with Zhou has to do with his track record on law. In fact, though the “Three Supremes” doctrine was in many ways Zhou’s signature policy, it has enjoyed widespread support among most senior leaders. It was President Hu Jintao himself who announced its promulgation in 2007.

More broadly, given the overwhelming challenges that the new Politburo will face, from official corruption and environmental degradation to ethnic and social unrest—compounded with an economy that is likely to slow and an increasingly frustrated and rights-conscious citizenry—the social pressures that underlie “stability maintenance” will only grow fiercer. This will likely generate a stronger impulse among senior leaders to “harmonize” rather than legalize. We should not forget that China’s pursuit of legal development was part of a broader strategy of bolstering economic growth and enhancing social management. An instrumental rule of law deteriorates quickly when priorities shift.

What will ultimately change Party policy is a fundamental realization that forced harmonization only exacerbates unrest. Stability campaigns may purchase temporary relief, but it is in the long-term interests of both the Party and the country as a whole to work towards realizing a legal system that holds everyone to account. This will require truly enlightened leadership, more than a mere reshuffling of like-minded personnel.