China: moving toward a more normal country

April 25, 2016 13:11
China has 247 laws on the books and more than 120 bills awaiting action by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, but it needs 1,000 for the rule of the law to be in place, Wang Zhenmin says. Photo: China Daily/FCC

In mid-April, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong sponsored a lunch talk on the rule of law in China.

What set this talk apart was the speaker: Wang Zhenmin, head of the law department of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong.

This was the first time an official at the liaison office had ever spoken at the club, and, understandably, the room was packed.

The speaker, who is also dean of the law faculty at Tsinghua University, spoke candidly.

He said that in the first three decades of the People’s Republic of China, formed in 1949, politics dominated and there was no rule of law.

There were only two laws: the constitution, which was frequently changed, and the marriage law.

Then, from 1979 on, for three more decades, Professor Wang said, economics dominated, as the country focused on development.

Now, we are into a third 30-year period, and, Professor Wang hopes, this time the rule of law will dominate.

Today, he said, there are 247 laws on the books and more than 120 bills awaiting action by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature.

To have a complete rule of law mechanism, the legal expert said, there is a need for at least 1,000 laws, his own research shows, so China still has quite a long way to go.

In the past, he said, Chinese officials thought laws were enacted for lawyers and had nothing to do with them.

Party secretaries, governors, mayors and county heads studied official documents but spent little time on the law.

This description of rule of law in China was very heartening, and few would disagree that China should continue to move in this direction.

However, it is now 67 years since the People’s Republic was proclaimed, and the road ahead is still very long and may well be twisted, judging by the past.

Professor Wang also insisted that China was a normal country.

It seems to be stretching the meaning of the word normal to apply that to a country where the ruling Communist party is above the government and where the military belongs not to the state but to the party.

Nonetheless, a recent debate in China between a prominent former diplomat and the chief editor of a leading newspaper does appear to be a sign that China is in some ways turning into a more normal country.

Wu Jianmin, former ambassador to France and the retired head of the Foreign Affairs University, gave a speech on March 30 in which, among other things, he criticized Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalistic Global Times newspaper, which, he said, “always publishes articles that are very extreme and narrow-minded”.

In a talk to students at the university that he used to head, the diplomat said: “Many people now still have the habitual thought of wars and revolutions and always think about waging a war.”

He said that, last year, after listening to a speech given by the editor, he told Hu: “Your eyes have not seen the world in a full scope. You failed to see the major developments in this world, and you failed to get hold of the main global trends.”

To Wu, the main trends are peace and development rather than the imminence of war.

Hu responded with a lengthy post on the Weibo social network, where he said Wu’s comments were typical of the thinking of “old-fashioned Chinese diplomats” who believed the media’s role was only to highlight “diplomatic achievements”.

He said his paper published reports that sounded more hawkish and struck a different tone from the official line and argued that the Global Times provided “a platform for diverse voices” and was “a positive asset of China’s foreign policy”.

The debate between a hawkish editor and a dovish diplomat caught the imagination of the Chinese public, with thousands of online comments supporting one side or the other.

It also attracted comments from other media organs, including the China Daily.

“Since diplomacy is essentially an extension of internal affairs,” an article in the China Daily said, “public participation in discussions on foreign policy can minimize the opposition against the final outcomes at home. Without people’s understanding and support, no foreign policy can be implemented smoothly.”

This is true.

Rational discussion of foreign policy is welcome and will turn China into a more normal country.

Hopefully, it will also become a country where the rule of law is no longer the exception but the norm.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.