Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping has proposed setting up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is seen as a challenge to U.S. influence in the region. Getty Images

The Chinese government is using a high-level Communist Party meeting that began Monday to hammer home a key point related to the 2-year-old anti-corruption campaign initiated by President Xi Jinping. State media has been talking often and insistently about the rule of law, a concept that will be the focus of the ruling Communist Party’s fourth plenum meeting.

“This will be the first time for a party session to center on the rule of law,” Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, reported ahead of the meeting's start. “It is intended to promote the modernization of the country’s governing system and capabilities.”

The concept of rule of law quickly became a buzzword in China after people who oppose the Occupy movement in Hong Kong attacked the demonstrators as people who undermine the rule of law. In the People’s Daily, Beijing law expert Qiang Shong said Hong Kong protesters were “deliberately breaking the law." Western observers might be baffled by the choice of words; Occupy protesters are in fact demanding changes that would bring Hong Kong more in line with the commonly held definition of rule of law in the West.

But the Chinese definition is different.

Beijing says its take on the rule of law will be more comprehensive, with distinctly Chinese characteristics, especially a focus on fighting corruption and reform of the judicial system.

This will manifest in various ways, including something as simple as the modernization of the system to bring it in line with the digital age. A Xinhua article published Sunday noted the digitization of court rulings has made the lives of lawyers much easier. Chinese courts have been ordered to publish verdicts online within seven days of a ruling, a move meant to improve the transparency of a judicial system often criticized as murky. “It not only shows the convenience and higher efficiency of the Internet era, but also revealed a more open and transparent initiative to realize rule of law,” a Shanghai lawyer told Xinhua.

An uncontroversial and seemingly simple change like going digital may not be exactly the change some reform-minded Chinese wanted, but other proposed changes, which still remain vague, may have a more profound impact. For example, another reform expected to come from the meeting is limiting the influence local officials have on court cases. The move not only fits within Xi’s overarching anti-corruption drive, but may influence how courts are perceived by the public -- and with less influence from government officials, Chinese media says this will help usher in the second stage of change, a move toward a more independent court system. An article published Monday in the official People’s Daily said the party meeting would set goals to be achieved by 2020 that would ensure “independence and fairness in courts” as well as creating a more transparent judicial system.

But none of this means the party is giving up any control. In fact, rule of law in its Chinese version is meant to consolidate the party's power.

“Rule of law is the only way to achieve stability of the state,” the People's Daily said. “At present, China is facing a complex external environment with unbalanced development." In this view, "political participation of the masses and increasing awareness [of rule of law]” will “safeguard” the interests of the Chinese government.

A separate article by the newspaper looked at the international perception of the rule of law reform, which would “ensure human rights for common people.” Citing several international scholars and diplomats, the story enforced the message that establishing and enforcing China’s version of rule of law would improve the country’s international image and help the party “overcome resistance to reforms.”