Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Whither Chinese Constitutionalism?

China’s constitution has been described (by Professor Donald Clarke) as the least important document in the Chinese legal system. But constitutional discourse is clearly becoming more important in Chinese law politics, as highlighted by the recent high profile arrest and subsequent release of Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer associated with the Open Constitution Initiative. Like other communist documents, the Chinese constitution is usually described as serving programmatic and ideological rather than constitutionalist ends. That is, rather than providing for enforceable rules constraining government, the constitution is used either to bless changes that have already occurred or to announce new policies to be achieved in the future. One frequent pattern, found in the former Soviet Union and in China until 1982, was that new constitutions would be adopted with changes in leadership, as new leaders sought to announce their presence.

The 1982 Constitution, adopted shortly after Deng Xiaoping consolidated power and launched China’s modernization program, is an interesting document in this regard. Law played a central role in Deng’s thinking as he sought to provide greater institutional order to underpin China’s development. The 1982 Constitution de-emphasizes the Chinese Communist Party and nominally places the Constitution above all organizations in the country. Post-Deng leaders have modified the constitution through amendment, rather than replacement, preserving ideological continuity with Deng. Amendments have been used to mark ideological developments. For example, in 1988, the Constitution was revised to make reference to a privatesector to complement the “socialist public economy.” The 1993 amendments added the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to the preamble and introduced the “socialist market economy,” thus incorporating Deng Xiaoping’s formula into the document. In 1999, a reference to the recently deceased Deng was incorporated into the preamble. In 2004, the Constitution was amended to guarantee private property rights and provide for compensation for expropriated land, an important signal for both foreign investors and China’s own market sector. Human rights are also included, reflecting the Party’s ideological pushback against critics. In addition, in keeping with the tradition of each Chinese leader’s leaving his mark on the Constitution, Jiang Zemin’s theory of the Three Represents was introduced into the preamble. This provided ideological coverage for inclusion of the business class (“advanced productive forces”). It seems highly likely that a future amendment will incorporate the latest formula of the Harmonious Society that is the mark of current leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

My forthcoming co-authored book, The Endurance of National Constitutions, speculates that China’s 1982 Constitution might ultimately play a role not unlike that of Mexico’s 1917 Constitution. Mexico under the PRI regime had a constitution that embodied ideological continuity, but not constitutionalism. Over the long period of PRI rule, however, the constitution was frequently amended to co-opt and include new social forces as they arose. This led to gradually increasing congruence between the formal promises of the text and actual social practice. Eventually, when Mexico democratized in the late 1990s, the constitution was preserved and now operates as a more significant constraint on political actors, with both left and right wing parties relying on it in particular instances. The story shows the gradually increasing importance of a constitution within an authoritarian regime, under conditions in which there is a need for ideological continuity. To be sure, the analogy between China and Mexico is speculative, and there are important structural and ideological differences between the CCP and the PRI. But the Mexico outcome is at least one possible model for China. More on the Chinese Constitution can be found in an excellent forthcoming book edited by Stephanie Balme and Michael Dowdle. No doubt we’ll have more to say about the topic when that book hits the shelves.

(cross-posted at

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