Hopes for reform in China have risen in recent weeks. Xi Jinping’s decision to make Shenzhen the site of his first formal inspection tour as party general secretary spurred predictions that he will seek to assume Deng Xiaoping’s mantle as an economic reformer (“Xi Jinping’s ‘Southern Tour’ Reignites Promises of Reform,”China Brief, December 14, 2012). Similarly, Xi’s speech regarding China’s need for the rule of law—given on the 30th anniversary of the 1982 constitution—gave rise to press speculation that he may pursue legal and political reform (South China Morning Post, December 13, 2012; AFP, December 4, 2012).
Naturally, this comes against the background of a conservative turn against legal reform by Chinese leaders in recent years . Since 2005, party authorities have cooled on the rule-of-law discourse that characterized the late 1990s and early 2000s. Party political campaigns have warned Chinese judges and courts against foreign legal norms. Public interest lawyers have been subjected to increased pressure, harassment and periodic disappearances or torture. Moreover, under the leadership of former party political-legal committee head and standing committee member, Zhou Yongkang, extralegal “stability maintenance” (weiwen) institutions have ballooned in size and influence.
New language in official pronouncements now suggests Chinese leaders intend to reverse at least some of these policies. This appears to be linked directly to internal party efforts to curb the power of political-legal committees in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal (“Year-End Questions on Political-Legal Reform,” China Brief, December 14, 2012). This shift has allowed activists some greater space to advocate for reforms to state practices, including the reeducation through labor (RETL) system. Central authorities, however, remain committed to maintaining party political control, rendering it unclear how far such legal reforms will be permitted to proceed.
[The full article is available on the Jamestown Foundation China Brief website]