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Is the Chinese leadership really serious about constitutionalism?

Qin Hui and Out of Imperial Regime

Ahead of China's celebration of its second National Constitution Day to promote public awareness of the rule of law earlier this month, a book written by a well-known liberal scholar narrating the country's unfulfilled exploration of constitutional democracy was banned by the Chinese authorities, two months after its publication.

The story has drawn some attention from Western media, which have long kept a close watch on China's "suppression" of dissidents advocating for freedom of expression and human rights, and is sparking a public concern as to whether the Chinese leadership is serious about practicing constitutionalism, which it says should be achieved in accordance with laws but under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

Qin Hui, author of Out of Imperial Regime and professor at Tsinghua University, one of China's top institutions of higher education, told the Financial Times by telephone that bookstores had been told to pull his book from the shelves, but he did not make any further comments on the reasons behind the directive. "It is like they want to kill someone, and will not let him complain about it…I cannot talk about this matter at present," the British newspaper quoted the professor as saying.

Chinese characters for Out of Imperial Regime have been blocked on, and, China's popular online shopping platforms.

One Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media site, many users showed sympathy to Qin and found it puzzling that a book focusing on constitutionalism, which President Xi Jinping's administration has vowed to achieve, became a target of ban, and that the topic became taboo in China. "A possible reason why the book is banned is that the author gave a wrong name to his book. If the book was named 'Into Imperial Regime', things might have been different," wrote a Weibo user.

The comments made under the posts related to the ban of the book give the indication that the public is skeptical about the government's pledge to promote constitutionalism.

Qin Hui and his book

Published in October 2015 by the Qunyan Press, which was established by the China Democratic League Central Committee in 1989, Out of Imperial Regime presents a panoramic picture of how China got rid of the feudal rule of the late Qing Dynasty and embraced the republican period (1912-1949) only to find that the promise of Western-style constitutional democracy offered by the newly found republic was short-lived.

The book has 13 chapters, which respectively discuss issues including the possibility of peacefully transitioning the monarchy to constitutional monarchy in the late Qing Dynasty, the reasons why the masses hated the imperial regime, the ideological basis and historic significance of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, as well as the hard choice between Westernization, anti-Westernization and modernization.

During a promotion event for Out of Imperial Regime at a Beijing bookstore last month, Qin said, "Every nation had the dream of flying in the sky, but not every nation could invent an airplane. The Chinese traditional culture did not germinate the idea of constitutional democracy, but the concept surely deserves appreciation and acceptance in our value system."

In the late Qing Dynasty when China was moving away from the regime inherited from the Qin Dynasty known as the first imperial dynasty of ancient China, Chinese people preferred a Western-style system due to the discontent toward the Qin regime, Qin said when talking about his book in an interview with the Southern Weekly, a domestic liberal-leaning newsweekly famous for its protest against China's censorship in 2013.

The professor considered the Qin regime, which was handed down for more than 2,000 years, barbarian, centralized and a destroyer of the previous Zhou Dynasty’s humanitarian ethical structure.

"(At the time), Chinese people naturally pinned the hope on the new-born constitutional republic (the Republic of China)…After the Xinhai Revolution, constitutional democracy has always been China's ideal. But after 1945, many Chinese liberal intellectuals lost faith in the ruling Nationalist Party because its dictatorial rule deviated from the ideal," said Qin, denying the view that Chinese people were traditionally and culturally incapable of accepting constitutionalism.

In an article, book critic Liu Yu described Qin as a "plumber" of thinking, because he always appears wherever the wrong cognition and notion exist.

Liu said that Qin tried to attest to the fact in his book that the Republic of China actually made greater achievements "in terms of economy, diplomacy and politics", which is different from the entrenched view that the feeble nature of the bourgeoisie and the failure of the revolution in 1911 to mobilize the masses brought to endless dogfights between warlords.

Qin put forward the notion that the spirit of Western-style constitutionalism comes from individualism which is hostile to the state, government and emperor, rather than from nationalism which overwhelmed democracy during the late Qing period, said Liu.

"The popularity of nationalism during the late Qing period was promoted by the intellectuals who embraced the doctrine when studying in Japan," Liu quoted Qin as saying, who said that the major victory of nationalism was not accidental.

In a conclusion, Liu said that Qin’s book is like a "collection of his papers which has a clear logic and progressively deep analyses" of the history of the transformation period.

Academic freedom

"Professor Qin is a prudent and kind teacher. His lectures are always thought-provoking," a Tsinghua University graduate who only gave her surname as Li told the

Li said that she attended Qin's lectures relating to the history of Western thinking when she was an undergraduate. "I remember that the most impressive thing about Professor Qin is his argument about the reasons why the United States has no basis for socialism," said Li.

When asked about whether Tsinghua University limits the freedom of academic research, Li said, "In fact, the teachers of Tsinghua University are allowed to offer a lot of interesting lectures, many of which are very progressive and thoughtful."

"When I studied at Tsinghua University, academic and idea exchanges were allowed, with additional lectures launched for public discussion."

Li, who has also studied at famous universities in the United States and Europe, thinks that her stay at Tsinghua University and what she learned at the top Chinese university is as valuable as that in the Western countries.

However, there have been reports saying that the Chinese government has been strengthening ideological control over higher education institutions across China in order to make Marxism the only ideological guidance.

Earlier this year, the state-funded Confucius Institutes were reported to allegedly stifle academic freedom at American universities and colleges, which China resolutely denied.

Chinese-style constitutionalism

Last year, the Communist Party of China listed rule of law and judicial reform as the major issues discussed at its plenary session, and at the same year, the Chinese government decided December 4 as the National Constitution Day to mark the day in 1982 when the current constitution was adopted and which defines the indisputable dominance of the Communist Party of China.

After taking office as general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi said in a speech celebrating the 30th anniversary of the current constitution's adoption that ruling China by law means that ruling the nation in accordance with the constitution which none of individuals and organizations can overrule.

On many occasions, Xi has affirmed that China will not usher in Western-style democracy and political system, as it is not helpful to the stability of China's politics and society.

The introduction of Western-style democracy into Africa and the Middle East, sometimes by force, has led to failure, with the escalating violence by terrorist groups whose rise was caused by the US's military intervention seen as a bloody lesson. Last month, the Islamic State threatened to assault London, Washington and Rome, after the terrorist organization ravaged Paris with a series of bombings and shootings which caused deaths of more than 100 innocent people.

China's vow to promote institutionalism also came as a sweeping anti-graft campaign entered a deeper phase, which has ensnared numerous big "tigers" such as former security chief Zhou Yongkang, former Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai and officials at ministerial level. Xi has said many times that corruption is eroding the Communist Party's legitimacy to rule the country.

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