On October 19, China’s Communist Party began its Fourth Plenum regarding the country’s rule of law. This timely topic came in response to the Hong Kong democracy protests that have sought to challenge China’s authoritarian rule (since their inception in September).
The movement began when activists protested outside the Hong Kong Government headquarters after China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) announced that during elections, a nominating committee would choose two to three candidates before the general public could vote. Leaders of the democracy protests demand that people directly select Hong Kong’s next leader. The government has rejected this demand.
As the Fourth Plenum came to an end on October 23, the official Xinhua news agency released a statement on legal reforms, but it contained few details. The Communist Party said it would create a new way to prevent intervention in court decisions and set an outline for new courts to remove legal authority from local politicians.
However, it announced, “socialist rule of law must uphold the party’s leadership, and party leadership must rely on socialist rule of law.” Indeed, legal experts insisted that the government did not intend to amend the judiciary so that it would rule against the party’s policies.
Still, the Fourth Plenum has not appeared to address the main concerns of the protests. Although protest leaders have recently shown a lack of coordination, as evident in the last minute cancellation of a two-day vote on October 26 that was supposed to respond to the latest offer by city officials, their concerns are legitimate and the government must seek to advance legal reform.
Legal reform would help to eliminate corruption in the justice system. Business people often suffer during litigation proceedings because of this corruption. For example, private Chinese firms and foreign investors complain that judges typically respond to local governments that seek to protect their own interests, insisting they are unable to receive a fair trial.
As for the demands of the protesting students, many suggest that the government remains hesitant to adopt the legal reform necessary to transition towards democracy because of fears that it would harm its economy. However, as China’s economy continuously diminishes, experts claim that the use of democratic principles and institutions could actually help.
Moreover, the U.S. views China as the regional aggressor toward democratic states, namely Japan. A move towards legal reform and democracy could help to instead enhance the relationship between the two world powers. Thus, the American and Chinese efforts to improve the strategic security framework for the region could be strengthened further with China’s move toward democracy.
Of course, democracy is also the way of the present and the future. The students protesting in Hong Kong have every right to do so, for people should be able to choose who governs and leads them. A nominating committee to choose two to three candidates for each election prior to the public vote is not acceptable in today’s understanding of civil rights. China must recognize this and make the necessary legal reforms to correct its immoral and anti-democratic system.