The irony highlights Beijing’s fraught relationship with the document.
On Dec. 4, China’s first annual Constitution Day, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily posted the complete text of the Chinese constitution to its Weibo microblogging account, accompanied by the upbeat hashtag: “Let’s all read the Constitution!” The easy-to-read attachment included each constitutional article — including Article 35, which guarantees the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and demonstration to Chinese citizens.
Yet freedom of speech was not being observed in practice. On Dec. 3 and 4, the word “constitution” became the most highly censored term on Weibo, according to Weiboscope, a project of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre that monitors online censorship in China; and on Dec. 4, “constitutionalism” joined the list of most-censored words. Searches for “constitution” and “constitutionalism” on Tieba, a popular discussion platform, were also blocked on Dec. 4 and 5. Censors also scrubbed non-critical posts that simply quoted the constitution. One user posted the full text of Article 35 on his own Weibo account, along with the comment, “Today is China’s first Constitution Day” and the hashtag “Study the Constitution.” Internet censors quickly found and deleted his post. Another user, who wished to remain anonymous in order to avoid official retaliation, told Foreign Policy, “I can’t comment on the Weibo post that says I have a constitutional right to free speech.”
The irony is indicative of Beijing’s conflicted relationship with constitutionalism. China’s constitution was adopted in 1982, and its preamble essentially bestows the party with its authority to rule, stating that the country is a “dictatorship of the proletariat” operating “under the leadership of the [party] and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.” But the document also contains broad protections for its citizens. Unlike terms such as “human rights,” which the party has successfully associated with an implicitly adversarial West, the concept of constitutionalism — that is, that a country should be ruled according to its constitution, not whoever happens to enjoy the most power at any given time — enjoys broader acceptance among Chinese people, especially reformists. But examples of authorities depriving citizens of rights enumerated in China’s constitution, including freedom of religion and freedom from unlawful arrest and detention, frequently emerge.
The party has recently sought to appropriate the idea of constitutionalism for itself. State media presented Constitution Day as a part of the party’s push to strengthen rule of law. In December 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to “promote the authority of the constitution,” hinting at a revival of the rule of law discourse that seems to have faded among party authorities after 2005 due to a conservative pushback against legal reform. But just weeks later in January 2013, propaganda officials bypassed editors of the liberal Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly to heavily censor the publication’s annual New Year’s editorial. Originally entitled “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism,” the article called for more respect for constitutional rights. The post-censorship version, however, hailed the party’s guidance of the political system — an outcome that led to the paper’s reporters staging a high-profile strike calling for greater freedom of expression and democracy. Guo Feixiong, a prominent writer and activist who participated in the protests, went on trial in Nov. 2014 in relation to his role in the protests, accused of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.”
Grassroots constitutionalist activists such as lawyer Xu Zhiyong have fared even worse than media outlets in their push for greater respect for rights ostensibly enshrined in China’s constitution. Xu founded the Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), an organization of academics and lawyers that supported democratic elections and freedom of speech, and provided legal aid to victims of official corruption. In 2009, the government levied a massive fine on OCI, essentially forcing its closure; and in June 2013, as part of a larger crackdown against dissidents that began after Xi assumed the presidency, authorities placed Xu under house arrest. In January a Beijing intermediate court sentenced Xu to four years in prison, also for “gathering crowds to disturb public order.”
Xu isn’t the most recent to face trial for promoting constitutionalism. On Oct. 27, just weeks before the new Constitution Day’s state-led calls to “study the constitution,” a Beijing court indicted Chinese filmmaker Shen Yongping for “illegal business operations” after he made a documentary on the history of China’s constitutional governance called “100 Years of Constitutionalism.” The documentary trailer begins with the statement, “To fight for your own rights is to fight for constitutionalism on the nation’s behalf.” The indictment called the documentary “illegal” and stated that Shen had a “weak understanding of the rule of law.”
While censors scrubbed Weibo of most critical comments, some users still found ways to express what they saw as a dissonance between the party’s pro-Constitution rhetoric and the reality of censorship. In one critical post that has so far escaped the censors’ axe, one user directly quoted state news agency Xinhua’s Nov. 1 announcement of the new Constitution day, writing, “The life and power of the constitution lies in its implementation. But it’s difficult to deny that in today’s China, implementation of the constitution still faces some challenges.” The user juxtaposed the state media quote with a screenshot of the all-too-common Weibo notification after a post has been removed by censors: “Sorry, this content infringes upon Weibo management guidelines or relevant legal policies.”