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Rule of law is key to reform

Chi Fulin
Updated: Oct 28,2014 10:09 AM     China Daily

A modern system of governance is essential to the country and its chief requirement is that authority must have clear boundaries

The Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, held last week in Beijing, put forward some new ideas and measures for ruling the country by law.

The plenum, responding to the urgent need for order in promoting social and economic development, clarified the road map to the rule of law, a big change from the previous rule by man and by power.

Achieving the rule of law in China is an essential mission for leaders. It is the foundation of good governance. Deepening reforms in a comprehensive way can remove barriers and accelerate the modernization of the State governance system.

Promoting the rule of law represents a profound reform in its own right. It touches virtually every area of State governance and, if well practiced, will help China maintain continuous growth and social stability.

The rule of law lies at the core of modernization and the ability of any nation to govern efficiently in today’s world. All of the subjects, institutions, models and procedures of governance should, in the first place, be brought in line with law.

The top-level design for the rule of law in China proposed by the Fourth Plenum is clear and achievable. Public awareness has been awakened, which creates a supportive atmosphere for the implementation of the detailed measures to come.

Modernization of state governance will predictably speed up in many fields right away.

A noteworthy characteristic of the plenum’s statement on the rule of law is the principle that not only the actions of individual people but of government bodies should be subject to the rule of law. It is impossible to have a rule-by-law society before the government begins to guide itself in an orderly, predictable way. All of the government’s interactions with society, and with the market, must be circumscribed by a respect for the law.

Government reforms featuring the cutting of red tape make a good starting point for further breakthroughs that will improve relations between the government and society, and between the government and the marketplace.

One significant outcome under a law-ruled government will be that power is put in a cage, as President Xi Jinping described it. That includes effective institutional supervision and a framework of outlining what the government is, and is not, empowered to do.

In short, laws should be applicable to all people and departments, irrespective of power or position. And they should be enforceable by independent judicial authorities.

All government practices, as well as self-supervision, should come under the purview of law. All matters related to the exercise of power should make reference to the law.

The plenum said that the government’s functions, structure, power, procedures and responsibilities should be codified for clear and transparent demarcation of power. Here, an “affirmative list” model could provide a feasible approach to mark the boundaries of power. The government under such a model would be prohibited from intervening in any matter not on the list - that is, from doing things it is not expressly empowered to do.

If the government does not reform itself, it will become an obstacle to China’s economic transformation and social development. Chinese society deserves these new mechanisms, which are long overdue, for restraining and supervising over the government.

The plenum was clear about giving people the appropriate tools. With incisive brevity concerning matters of government, it said that the disclosure of information to the public should be the norm, and non-disclosure should be the exception.

And it urged all departments to roll out concrete proposals for transparency in government operations and finance, as well as rules for the judiciary.

The people’s congresses at various levels, which are China’s legislature, must be strengthened and guaranteed, along with the media’s role as watchdog, it said.

The plenum stressed that justice is the country’s lifeblood and that the judiciary has a direct role in delivering social justice. Judicial system reforms, therefore, should make breakthroughs; otherwise, the rule of law will amount to little more than empty talk.

Chinese society is already divided along various fault lines, and the divisions are increasingly hardening. Resistance from vested interest groups to an independent and fair judiciary is inevitable. Success will require that prosecutorial and judicial authorities become more professional, and that they be insulated from the interventions of power and money, especially at the city and county levels.

Strict accountability systems need to be developed to prevent government officials from meddling in judicial affairs for any reason. The plenum suggested that local courts be directly administrated by the provincial judicial authorities rather than by city and county governments.

The nation is expected to put into practice the blueprint for rule of law that was drawn up in the plenum, and by its implementation China will take a concrete step forward in modernizing some fundamental power relations that shape society materially and culturally. Good governance, growth and justice will be easier to come by.

The author is president of the China Institute for Reform and Development, based in Hainan province.