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China’s President Raises Eyebrows with Sharp Rhetoric on Rule of Law

Calling the judiciary a 'knife' suggests the ruling party sees it as a weapon, not a constraint.


Chinese President Xi Jinping wants the world to know he’s a big fan of “rule of law.” The phrase has been a favorite of his over the past few months, ever since the ruling Chinese Communist Party concluded a plenum in October 2014 that state news agency Xinhua called a “milestone in China’s political reforms and progress.” Xi mentioned “rule of law” on 27 separate occasions from November 2012 to October 2014, according to a study by a state-owned newspaper, and stressed it again in his New Year address.

But Xi’s use of a different expression has poured cold water on the notion that China is about to embrace even a limited version of separation of powers. In an important meeting in early January, Xi stated that the party must ensure “the handle of the knife is firmly in the hands of the party and the people.”

Xi has only used the expression once publicly, but given that Xi borrowed the expression from former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong, once was enough to turn heads. As early as 1926 – that is, 23 years before he established the People’s Republic of China — Mao used the knife handle metaphor to describe the state’s judicial and police functions. (Similarly, Mao used the expression “the barrel of a gun” as a shorthand for military power.) The phrase was frequently used in state-run media and among Communist party cadres in the Mao era to refer to the police and courts as the weapon of the proletariat against “class enemies,” but later fell into disuse after China implemented economic reforms in the late 1970s. “We had not heard the saying ‘handle of a knife’ for a long time,” admitted an unnamed party cadre interviewed in a Jan. 20 article in state mouthpiece People’s Daily.

Xi’s speech and the subsequent hoopla about the revival of the knife metaphor in state-owned media makes clear that the party still sees the police and courts as weapons, not neutral actors charged with enforcing the law. The Daily article warned that “some people” have agitated for the abolition of the so-called “political and legal affairs committee,” a party-organ embedded in each and every court in China to ensure that the judiciary toes the party line. The article interpreted Xi’s knife metaphor as a reminder that the court and police should “heed the call of the party in all their actions.”

According to Qian Gang, director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, Chinese officials have shown increasing hostility towards the concept of judicial independence. As recently as a few years ago, according to Qian’s survey of state media reports, Chinese officialdom hailed judicial independence as a worthwhile goal; but under Xi’s leadership, concepts like constitutionalism and judicial independence have come under attack. “We cannot take the road of the West’s ‘judicial independence’ or ‘judicial neutrality,’” Zhang Chunxian, the party boss of the Xinjiang autonomous region and a member of the elite, policy-making Politburo, stated in a January 7 article in the Daily. “On this question we cannot be vague.”

The threatening nature of the knife metaphor has been felt in Chinese social media, particularly among liberals who hoped for more judicial independence and separation of powers. “When a knife is put against people’s throats, would anyone dare to dissent?” asked Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon, on the Weibo microblogging platform. Writer Xiao Zhonghua wrote, “Describing the police as a ‘knife’ means they are not serving the people, but perpetuating a dictatorship with violence.” An anonymous Weibo user remembered when the term was popular in the 1960s. “The top leader reviving such a dead and rotten term fifty years later; does that mean winter is coming again?”

To be sure, some of the chatter about rule by law stems from the anti-corruption campaign that Xi is currently waging. Chinese judiciary and police forces are themselves susceptible to corruption. Ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang and once-powerful local party boss Bo Xilai both treated the judiciary and police as their personal fiefdoms. Bo is now in prison, Zhou detained. Perhaps Xi meant to convey a desire to rebuild the judicial system to be better controlled by the party apparatus so that the police and judiciary act for the interest of the central party, rather than the whims of powerful individuals.

Nevertheless, the knife metaphor feels ominous, harking back as it does to a dark time in Chinese history, when Mao persecuted millions of people as “class enemies” because of their political views. If this was Xi’s deliberate attempt to warn those who harbor any fantasies of judicial independence from party control, he certainly got their attention.

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 Twitter: @rachel_tln

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