What's China Got Against the U.S. Constitution?

By Benjamin Carlson

What's China got against the US Constitution?

This week, in three front-page commentaries published over three days, the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily attacked America's constitutional structure, claiming that "there is no such thing as democracy and freedom under US constitutional governance."

The editorials, written by Ma Zhongcheng, a senior fellow at the Academy of Social Sciences Research Center, argued that calls for constitutionalism in China were being propagated by the United States as a form of "psychological warfare" intended to overturn the Communist Party's rule.

In the first piece, titled "‘Constitutionalism' Is a Weapon of the War for Public Opinion," Ma argued that US intelligence agencies exported democratic ideas as a way to topple socialist regimes. In the second piece, he went even further. He called America's belief in constitutional rule a "myth" used by the government to mislead the masses, protect its autocracy, and undermine stability in China.

"The US Constitution is a contradiction," he wrote in the second op-ed. "In the US, the Constitution is higher than the will of the US popular masses, but it is not higher than everything. The US Constitution is not the highest authority, the will of US oligarchs who monopolize capital is."

The third argued that constitutionalism in China is futile and bound to fail. The response on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, was harsh.

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"This is once again reviving a debate that's been going on for 91 years," wrote user Wu Jiaxiang. "Its purpose is simply to block political reform."

Many speculated that "Ma Zhongcheng" was a pseudonym meaning "loyal to Marxism."

Steeped in the stale vocabulary of Marxist theory, the articles may seem like recycled propaganda from the 1970s, but they reflect a real strain of anxiety within today's Communist Party.

Over the last year, Chinese have increasingly called for the Communist Party to honor the rule of law and protect the citizens' rights enshrined in China's constitution, which was adopted in 1982. Some cadres fear following this path would lead to an end of the Party's monopoly on power. On paper, China's constitution is a remarkably liberal document, with protections for freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It affords all citizens the right to vote and stand for election. Article 5 makes quite clear that nobody - not even the Communist Party - can violate its tenets.

"No organization or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the Constitution and the law," it says.

Of course, these rights have always existed more in theory than in reality.

Party bosses live effectively above the law unless, as in the case of Bo Xilai, a political struggle brings them down. But as activists such as the New Citizens Movement have drawn more attention to constitutional issues in China, the calls for reform have gone mainstream.

At the end of last year, an editorial in the influential magazine Caixin argued that in order to progress, China's government needs a system of checks and balances in order to "ensure the country is ruled by its constitution," not by the caprices of officials.

Even General Secretary and President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated that "no organization or individual should be above the Constitution and the law."

The strident new anti-constitutional editorials, however, cast the sincerity of those statements into doubt. Their front-page placement suggests that they were intended to have a chilling effect.

As Minxin Pei, a China politics expert at Claremont McKenna College, recently wrote, "China's new leadership may condone some economic or administrative reforms compatible with the objective of preserving the Communist Party's rule. But it will not tolerate any initiatives that could imperil the party's political monopoly."

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