Thursday February 27, 2020


October 23, 2014

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China held its annual plenary session this week, October 20 – 23, in Beijing. The meeting was attended by the 205 members of the committee, along with other Party groups.  This Fourth Plenum has been highly anticipated following the outcome of last year’s session. Last year’s Third Plenum, which met in November, saw policy changes in the One Child Policy reform, the abolition of labor camps, loosening of hukou restrictions, and financial and market retooling. Citizens hope to see announcements of similarly concrete reforms with the closing of this year’s meeting. The announcement that the Fourth Plenum would focus on “rule of law” set off speculation over what those three words mean to China’s Communist Party and what they could mean for China.

Chinese sources focus on the economic aspects of “rule of law.” They celebrate the stability and equity  the introduction of further rules and regulations to the market will bring to China’s economy. Analysts hope the aftermath of the Fourth Plenum will see more transparency and fairness in business practices, as well as a more centralized legal system that will operate more objectively. China’s leadership will do what it can to ensure continued sustainable economic development.

In the West, however, the announcement was met with some trepidation. The “rule of law” touted by the Communist Party does not have the same meaning it does in Western democracies. It certainly does not mean the Communist Party will tolerate institutional checks on its power. Though China has a constitution, no body exists that can enforce constitutional compliance – compliance is up to the party.

Instead of introducing laws that regulate the government, the Party is concerned with law as a tool for consolidating power. As a commentator remarks in Christian Science Monitor, the issue in question is “weather the party is above the law, or vice versa.” Xi has a habit of quoting often from the classic Chinese philosophies, which seems to suggest he agrees with the first answer. Under Legalism, the leader set the laws and strictly enforced them as a method of maintaining a stable and ordered society, obedient to the emperor. Other analysts point out the possible abuses that might come with a stronger rule of law in China, as it might allow Xi Jinping and the Chinese government to crack down harder on those they consider dissidents, which in turn will lead to an increase in human rights violations.

The official statement on the decisions made during the Fourth Plenum did little to reassure those concerned. The proposed reforms aim to introduce regulations to the legal system that will make decisions fairer. While these reforms will help Chinese citizens find redress if they have been cheated, they will not make the courts more independent from party influence. Certainly, the party wants to ensure that no independent judiciary can question its authority. The reforms do, however, address issues of corruption in the courts. The reforms move financial decision making from the hands of local party officials to that of provincial governments.

These changes continue the trend of rooting out and reducing corruption in government that has been the focus of Xi’s Presidency thus far. This focus has worked out well for Xi Jinping, earning him vast public approval, even as he eliminates rivals and consolidates his own power and influence. For now the party seems largely content to follow his lead. With the proposed legal reforms and increased rule of law, the party leaders can make Chinese citizens feel as though they have gained rights and protections, while not actually giving up any control.

The Committee will release a more detailed report of the plenary session next week, which will hopefully answer questions. In particular, the people are waiting to hear the party’s decision regarding Zhou Yonkang, the ex-security official brought down on corruption charges earlier this year.

For more information, consult the following sources:

Bloomberg – “China Seeks to Protect Judges from Official Meddling”


China Daily – “Experts say rule of law will unlock economic potential”

China News Service – “Basic facts about the 4th plenum of the 18th CPCC”

China Post – “Chinese Communist Party’s key Fourth Plenum opens in Beijing”

Christian Science Monitor – “Does China’s leader Xi Jinping wield total control? Party confab may offer clues”

The Diplomat – “4th Plenum: Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics”

International Business Times – “China’s Communist Party Plenum Focuses on Rule of Law, But Not As The West Sees It”

LA Times – “China’s ruling Communists take up ‘rule of law’ – their way”

New York Times – “China Moves to Enact Rule of Law, With Caveats”

New York Times – “What China Means by ‘Rule of Law’”

Xinhua – By rule of law, China on the way to improving governance”

China Daily (中国日报) – “用法治精神推进改革大业”

Xinhua (新华) – 十八届四中全会提出全面推进依法治国的总目标和重大任务”

Compiled and edited by Molly Bradtke