Listen: Dali Yang Explains Why 'China Has No Hope' Without Stronger Rule of Law

Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) delivers his speech for the National Day reception marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China at The Great Hall Of The People on September 30, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

For the Asia Society Policy Institute’s (ASPI) AsiaConnect briefing on November 5, 2014, Dali L. Yang, Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and the founding Faculty Director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, spoke about the political and governance reforms that emerged from China’s Fourth Plenum, the implications of these reforms, and how these reforms fit into President Xi’s “Chinese Dream”. This blog post presents a condensed and edited version of Prof. Yang’s remarks, along with an audio recording of the conversation.

What was the political environment like before Xi Jinping came into office?

Before he assumed office, the expectations for Xi Jinping were fairly high. The leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao was not very active and despite China’s economic wealth, Mr. Hu was not seeking any new initiatives. The two years since Xi assumed his position have shown that this is a more decisive generation of leadership. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Xi is comfortable exercising his power. While his predecessors took years to assert control over the military, Xi’s military background allowed him to gain control quickly. In terms of anti-corruption, Wang Qishan, Xi Jinping, and others were dissatisfied with how officialdom worked, partly because of corruption and partly because officials were not always acting in the interests of party.

Overall, Mr. Xi has taken a page from the Mao era by engaging in criticism and traveling to provinces. He has drilled into officials that they need to demonstrate a desire to leave weaknesses behind and rededicate themselves to the party. And by disciplining the party, he has galvanized public opinion. Inequality and corruption have been a potent combination for mobilizing people.

What have you learned from Xi’s reform actions?

A year ago, the leadership held the Third Plenum as an arena to push forward a master blueprint for the economic reform agenda through 2020. The key point of that blueprint was that market forces must play a decisive role in the economy. China’s leaders want to push forward toward liberalization with reforms to interest rates, exchange rates, and state-owned enterprises, among other issues. Recently, the anti-corruption agenda has been targeting SOEs, which had become mini empires of their own. All those firms are chastened and very fearful with a greater focus on mitigating political risk.

Although we now have a better sense that the Fourth Plenum emphasized the rule of law, there is a debate on what that really means. Is it “rule of law” or rule by law? Mr. Xi wants more law, better law, and law where the party could better promote. Central to this new document from the Fourth Plenum, is the idea that the constitution should be the core of government and leadership action that should be respected by all, including the party. Every top official appointed or approved by the National People’s Congress needs to swear an oath of allegiance to the constitution.

What I want to emphasize here, is Mr. Xi is no longer as much of a puzzle. By invoking the constitution, he has gathered enough authority and peer support to push economic reform and now rule of law. If China tries to go forward without the rule of law, better laws, and more laws, then China has no hope. This document on the rule of law is clear and emphasizes how the law should be used to help China deal with the complex problems facing the country. We find that there are very important documents on the agenda for economic reform and in promoting law thru 2020. The key test is how these are going to be implemented.

When you say that without the rule of law there is no hope, does that mean we should expect political reform to continue because there’s no other viable options?

Absolutely. China’s leaders are worried about the so-called middle income trap. Many countries find it very difficult to continue reforms after they reach middle income status because there are many vested interests holding reforms back. China’s leaders can continue to re-shape the agenda by introducing a variety of reforms in different sectors. Overall, we have a clear indication that the new leaders need to take the initiative, and this is where decisive leadership is needed.

With anti-corruption activities proceeding, will there be an uprising by those being investigated?

In other historic examples, there has been this kind of opposition. In China’s case, there is no indication of organized opposition. In fact, the Communist Party is against any organized opposition. In that sense, there is no indication that senior leadership will not be able to implement these reforms. Mid-career officials seem to be uneasy and they want to mitigate risks to their career. The irony is that while they complain about the anti-corruption campaign, they also recognize that something needs to be done.

Some commentators say Xi Jinping has not really consolidated his power. Certain anti-corruption cases are proceeding more slowly than expected, and Xi has not been able to appoint key people to the central military committee. Do you share that view or do you have a different perspective?

My sense is that those kinds of investigations inevitably take a long time. Some people he has appointed may no longer be influential but it is not easy to tell. I think there is no doubt that he controls the party leadership and the leadership of the military. We do not actually know yet if there have been special appointments within the party because they have not been publicly recorded and may not be for some time to come. However, appointments within the military are proceeding.

Listen to the AsiaConnect call with Dali L. Yang using the audio player below.

About the Author

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Christina Dinh is a Program Officer for the Asia Society Policy Institute. She is based in Washington, D.C.