Reform? Just Uphold The Constitution

High profile calls for political and media reform in recent weeks have cited a surprising document as the source of their inspiration: the Chinese Constitution. It turns out that the Chinese Constitution is a pretty progressive document with provisions protecting free speech and human rights.

The selection of Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize is perhaps the biggest recent source of pressure for reform in China. Liu is currently serving an 11 year sentence in jail for his part in writing Charter 08, a document calling for political reform as the only way to guarantee human rights. And what is cited as the model for this political reform? Charter 08 calls for “constitutional government” and points out that “In 2004, the National People’s Congress amended the Constitution to add that ‘[the State] respects and guarantees human rights.'”

In a related invocation, Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, drew attention to constitutional protections of free speech in his recent defense of the committee’s decision: “Mr. Liu’s imprisonment is clear proof that China’s criminal law is not in line with its Constitution.” He mentions that China amended it’s constitution to include these protections as part of it’s acceptance to the UN.

An open letter, sent just after the Nobel announcement, calling for press freedom also appealed directly to upholding the constitution. The letter’s title: “Enforce Article 35 of China’s Constitution, Abolish Censorship and Realize Citizens’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Press.” The letter was signed by several high ranking officials and journalists, including a former member of the CCP Central Committee and a former director of the People’s Daily.

China’s Premier, Wen Jiaobao, has even joined the chorus calling for reform recently, albeit a bit less stridently. But his calls have one important thing in common: reliance on the constitution. In a recent interview on CNN Wen made several references to the constitution, including “Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution” and, “all political parties, organizations, and all people should abide by the constitution and laws without any exception.”

Easier said than done, but having the highest legal document in the country as a talking point is certainly a good place to start.

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