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Does China's leader Xi Jinping wield total control? Party confab may offer clues (+video)

This week's four-day Fourth Plenum in Beijing is one indicator of President Xi's consolidation of power in the party-state. The fate of security czar Zhou Yongkang, who has been detained during an anti-graft probe, is on the agenda.

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People wait to enter Beijing's Tiananmen Square on a hazy day in Beijing, October 20, 2014. China is set to unveil key legal reforms this week that will try to limit the influence local officials have on court cases, a move being closely watched by company executives who hope it will make the legal system more impartial.

Jason Lee/Reuters

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As the Communist Party’s top leaders meet here for their annual four day conference, the official agenda has only one item on it: “ruling the country according to law.”

But behind the firmly closed doors of a government-owned hotel, even more is at stake. The Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee is the sort of political event that President Xi Jinping has to control if he is to ensure an unassailable grip on the ruling Communist Party. And among the party bigwigs he is not universally popular.

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“The plenum provides a platform at which some of the concerns being raised can come to the fore,” says Russell Leigh Moses, who teaches Chinese politics at the Beijing Center.

In China’s opaque system of government the battle lines are sometimes fuzzy. But Mr. Xi has staked his leadership on economic reforms that would undermine powerful state owned enterprises and other vested interests. His vigorous campaign against official corruption is widely seen as a bid to weaken his opponents within the party.

Xi will prevail, predicts Huang Jing, an expert on Chinese leadership politics at the National University of Singapore, “because he has legitimacy, public support and power. He may face huge difficulties, but he won’t be overwhelmed.”

Exactly what “rule according to law” means in China is not clear. It certainly does not mean what it means in Western democracies, where law serves as an independent check on a government’s power, and where governments are often answerable to a body of laws called a constitution that is interpreted by an independent judiciary or supreme court. 

For those Chinese leaders who attach importance to law – and Xi appears to be among them – law is considered here more a tool that the government can use to control society. 

At the heart of the debate, says Hu Xingdou, a prominent commentator who teaches at Beijing’s Science and Technology University, “is a question that has not yet been resolved: whether the party is above the law, or vice versa.”

That question has been raised in recent years in intellectual circles through something called the "constitutionalism" movement, but many of its leaders and advocates have been punished and silenced.

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On paper, according to China's Constitution, the Communist Party and its cadres are subject to the law just like any other institution or citizen. In practice, the party ignores the law whenever it wants to. 

That is flagrantly the case with the anti-corruption campaign that Xi launched soon after taking power two years ago. One top-level victim of that campaign – former security czar Zhou Yongkang – is expected to be expelled from the party at this week’s meeting. But since he disappeared from public view a year ago he has been detained and investigated by party officials, not the police, and he has had no right to a lawyer or to remain silent, in violation of his legal rights.

The official Chinese press has published little about this year’s plenum, offering few clues about its outcome. Some observers believe that to assuage the widespread fear and uncertainty among Communist Party cadres, the meeting might give the anti-corruption campaign a more legal and institutional framework.

That could be seen as a small but significant step towards the rule of law, but nobody is expecting the Communist Party to take its hand off the levers that it uses to control the justice system, such as the party-dominated court committees that advise judges how to rule.

And the broader questions are likely to remain unanswered. “Does this mean in the long run that the authorities will subordinate themselves to the Constitution?” wonders Prof. Huang. “That, we don’t know yet.