Jan 09, 2013 06:46 PM

Constitution is Key Component of Reform

The year 2013 marks a fresh beginning, with signs of a renewed push for reforms raising expectations. The leadership transition in the milestone year of 2012 ushered in a new political era. Over the past two months, the team led by Comminist Party general secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly signalled it would speed up reforms.

When the changeover is completed in March, a new batch of local and central government leaders will be in charge. People have high hopes that this infusion of new blood will help create a mainstream political culture that values high-minded aspirations, pragmatism and charisma, and a political model that rejects corruption and secrecy.

For these reasons, the country's reforms are entering a new phase. The continuous and fierce struggle over the direction and substance of reform that has gripped the country since 2004 seems to be reaching a turning point, thanks in no small part to the Bo Xilai scandal. We saw how the path that once led to the Cultural Revolution could take us to yet another dead end. As Xi said: "Conflicts arising from the reform and open policy can only be resolved by solutions found through further reform."

No doubt there's still no consensus on reform, with some declaring "reform is dead." While the desire for change is strong throughout society, views are divided on the specifics. Resentment festers and there's talk of giving up.

There are many reasons for this. Chief among them is the existence of interest groups today that cherry-pick the reforms that suit them. They drag their feet on reforms that would benefit the people and nation, but become champions of reform when it comes to change that would line their pockets and increase their rent-seeking opportunities. These groups muddle the debate, making consensus an impossibility, and widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Decision-makers are in a bind, and reforms stall. Despite their hopes for reform, people will no longer be impressed by mere slogans and will wait to see what measures will be taken. The biggest challenge for the new leaders is to navigate a course of action given the conflicting interests.

History teaches that to seek change, we must first find leverage. In China, common ground can be found by honouring the country's constitution. Thus, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the 1982 constitution, the leadership pledged that the country would be governed according to its constitution.

A country's constitution spells out its founding principles. The 1982 constitution defines the rights and obligations of citizens, and affirms the principles of limiting the exercise of power. In reality, however, these principles are not practiced.

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