BEIJING — For six decades, Chinese leaders have tried to put in place a sweeping civil code to explain the law on some of China’s most contentious issues, including property rights, migrant workers, defamation and divorce.
And for six decades, they have failed, stymied by political squabbling and social upheaval, and leaving China with a piecemeal and outdated legal system.
Now, President Xi Jinping is reviving the idea of a national civil code as he seeks to remake China’s justice system. His government has embraced the code as a tool to fight corruption and fickleness in the courts, as well as to formalise state power on issues as varied as free speech and parental responsibility.
“Even while engaging in terrific repression in some respects, there is a desire to show continuing legal progress,” said Professor Jerome Cohen, a New York University expert on Chinese law. “Xi is trying to convince the world that China now can take the lead.”
On Wednesday, the Chinese legislature, a rubber-stamp body of Mr Xi and the ruling Communist Party, took a first step towards adopting a civil code, overwhelmingly approving a set of guiding principles and vowing to finish a complete code by 2020.
But, to succeed, Mr Xi and lawmakers will need to overcome significant ideological divisions within the party, especially on heated issues such as how to handle land disputes.
China’s government often tries to present the image of a unified and efficient bureaucracy marching in step. But the struggle over the civil code is a reminder that it remains divided on a range of ideological and policy issues, complicating the leadership’s efforts to meet rising public expectations.
China’s leaders also face resistance from activists and rights-minded scholars, who dismiss the civil code as nothing more than window dressing and a means for Mr Xi, who has pushed hard-line policies during his more than four years in power, to further restrict free speech in China.
Critics cite as a worrying sign the decision by lawmakers, during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress this month in Beijing, to make the defamation of Communist heroes and martyrs a civil offence.
“Will other citizens’ rights be protected as well?” asked Professor He Weifang, a law expert at Peking University and a prominent critic of the Communist Party. “This is a really bad move and has violated the basic spirit of civil laws, which champion dignity, personal freedom and equality.”
Still, others have warned that enshrining too many freedoms in the civil code, which hundreds of thousands of judges across the country will use to decide disputes large and small, might risk creating social unrest.
One prominent legal scholar, Liang Huixing of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, has raised the possibility of revolution if China were to guarantee expansive personal freedoms like property rights and free speech in the civil code, as some lawmakers and scholars have suggested. He has drawn comparisons to the 2014 uprising in Ukraine, warning of the threat posed by “unchecked freedom”.
Dr Zhou Guangquan, a lawmaker and a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, dismissed concerns that the government was not interested in protecting individual rights. He said it was essential to update China’s civil law, which has its roots in German law and was last significantly revised in the 1980s, before economic and social transformations.
“There are a lot of overlaps and contradictions,” wrote Dr Zhou in an email. “The passing of a civil code will erase these problems.”
Lawmakers say they intend to grapple with a host of issues in the civil code, including whether unborn children should be entitled to inheritance rights. They also say they intend to update laws on property to include virtual possessions, and to protect good Samaritans from punishment if they accidentally injure someone they are helping.
The new rules might also touch on the need to conserve resources, said Prof Zhou, helping resolve issues such as the excess of packaging in popular holiday gifts such as moon cakes.
One of the chief issues is how to resolve land disputes between residents and the government, a continuing source of social unrest. In China, homeowners have rights to their dwelling but not the ground underneath it.
To propel China’s development over the past quarter-century, the government has seized land and demolished homes at a rapid pace, in many cases over the opposition of local residents. In addition, the government parcels out land through 20- to 70-year leases, some of which are soon expiring, fuelling uncertainties in real estate markets.
Some lawmakers and legal scholars have proposed that the civil code should permit Chinese citizens to use land indefinitely.
Previous efforts to pass a civil code failed, but experts said the fact that Mr Xi and the party seem to have embraced the push to draft a code was a sign that the effort is likely to bear fruit this time.
Prof Cohen of NYU said adopting a civil code could help reinforce Mr Xi’s efforts to reassure domestic and foreign investors about the strength of China’s economic and political system.
“It is part of his effort to show how open and ready China is, by providing a legal system in which investors can have confidence,” he said. “Of course, the proof is in the pudding.” THE NEW YORK TIMES