Rule by law, with Chinese characteristics

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Wwith each year, the word of China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, is treated more like law. His favorite slogans are printed on red banners and posted on city streets and highway bridges. Roadside images of his face are still rare, at least outside of restive regions like Tibet or Xinjiang. But his name is everywhere, used on billboards praising his philosophy or asking citizens to uphold his leadership. His words are taught in school textbooks. They are turned into marching lines of metal characters that are built in fields.

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This indicates a change. After Mao Zedong died in 1976, ending years of ideological purges and frenzies, party leaders eliminated anything resembling a cult of personality or one-man rule. Political theories were given anonymous, vague names, such as “The Three Representatives”. Today, Mr. Xi’s orders are a staple of daily life. And in this era of personal rule, a puzzle presents itself. Even as Mr. Xi’s words carry a similar weight of discussion, his subordinates are busy turning his signature policies into formal legislation.

Recent examples include the Foreign Relations Act, which came into force on 1 July. It does not break new ground, but it reflects long-standing party principles as well as global initiatives promoted by Mr. Xi. Since the leader’s will may not be challenged, what is to be gained by applying his policies to individual laws?

Mr Xi’s own words offer a partial answer. One of his popular slogans is “yifa zhiguo”, or “ruling the country according to the law”. With these words, he does not guarantee the rule of law as a liberal reformer might understand. The party is above any legal code and even the constitution of China, its powers are not checked by any court. Indeed, Mr. Xi denounces judicial independence and the separation of powers as dangerous foreign ideas. Instead, to hear legal scholars explain it, Mr. Xi offers rule under the law: ie, professional management by officials following standard procedures. At home, the party hopes that this type of authoritarian rule will gain more legitimacy than the previous alternative: arbitrary decisions by (often corrupt) officials. As for the outside world, the Foreign Relations Law indicates that legal sanctions await those who are unhappy with Mr. Xi’s China.

Highfalutin management theories are only part of the puzzle, however. When asked, ordinary Chinese naturally say that laws are important and different from mere policy or practice. To explore what they mean by this, Chaguan went to the Red Flag Canal, a massive irrigation project in central Henan province, which was dug through forbidding mountains by farmers and laborers in the early 1960s. Mr Xi chose the site for a visit last autumn, just days after securing his third term as party leader. At the canal he urged youth to abandon their “enlightened” ways and learn from their ancestors, including members of a youth group who died digging a tunnel through solid rock. Chaguan visited the canal because it is exactly the type of “red tourism” site that the draft Patriotic Education Law proposes.

That law received the first reading by legislators last month. It is clear to ask: why is it needed at all? From kindergarten onwards, young Chinese are taught to love their motherland and their party. It is difficult to know how schools could offer much more patriotic education and still leave time for reading or math. Nevertheless, the official media say that the legislation is needed so much, and it is sure to become a law.

On a recent weekday, the Red Flag Canal was filled with students holding Communist Youth League flags, workers from state-owned companies and columns of rapidly marching soldiers. In interviews, visitors referred to Mr Xi’s words about the spirit of the Red Flag Canal, and his call to “eat bitterness and suffer hardship” to build a strong nation. When asked why China needs a patriotic education law, many offered versions of the same two ideas. First, law defines the duties of citizens. Without law, a young woman began studying at Henan Agricultural University: “We may have patriotic thoughts, but not show patriotism with our actions. ” Second, the law will allow the punishment of the non-native. Legal tools are needed to combat “foreign influences” suggested by the youth who met online, in movies or magazines, a middle school English teacher from Jiangsu, as his wide-eyed pupils gathered around.

These two definitions are in line with the intentions of the draft law. It catalogs the many organizations charged with promoting patriotism, from schools to publishers and religious institutions. Article 16 explains that parents “inculcate love for the motherland in family education” and “cooperate” when their children receive patriotic educational activities, within and outside of school. Then he lists crimes to be punished, from insulting the national flag to questioning the agreed history of the party’s heroes and martyrs.

The patriotism-business center

The draft law gives more guidance to local governments to develop sites that promote patriotism. Even an obscure monument can expect a boost, such as a museum near the Red Flag Canal that honors Gu Wenchang, a long-dead county party secretary. Although rather dry, with distant pictures of independent workers and some old farm implements, the museum attracts more than 40,000 visitors each year. Many are on official visits and recite the party’s oath in a beautiful courtyard with white walls, on which are red cliffs topped with green trees. Asked about the impact of the new law, the museum’s director, Li Hao, hopes to see even more visits. He quotes a Chinese saying about how legislation both guides and binds the public. “If there is a law, we can follow it. If there is a law, we must follow it,” he runs.

This is a great time to be in the red tourism business. In all fairness, Gu Wenchang’s main claim to fame is that he is one of three county-level party secretaries who have been praised by Mr Xi in essays and speeches. The director’s tribute is reproduced on a plaque at the entrance. For party members, Mr. Xi’s words already make this a sacred place. For everyone else, honor will soon be the law.

Read more from Chaguan, our China columnist:
China’s Message to the Global South (July 6)
How China sees Yevgeny Prigozhin’s revolution (June 29)
Xi Jinping reaches into ancient Chinese history for new bid for rule (June 15)

Also: How the Chaguan column got its name

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