European diplomats, officials from Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs, and CESL students attended a seminar on June 20 to exchange ideas about the rule of law, democracy and human rights in China and Europe.
The seminar was hosted by CESL student Fu Qiqi and started with an introduction to CESL by the two Co-deans, Fang Liufang and Thomas Bruha.
"Independent participation spreads the idea of democracy and promotes the development of law.” said CESL student Hu Yanhui. Independent candidates have been able to stand at local elections for the People’s Congress since 1980; however, it was only from 1998 that participation widened. In the 2011 election, professors, writers, high school students, laid-off workers, and even a street vendor stood as independent candidates.
Social media played an important part in enabling China’s independent candidates to garner support and promote awareness. Yet the power of social media is not only felt in China.
"Social media,” said Sam Morgan from UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “dramatically reduces the distance between people and politicians. This also allows people to discuss, debate and challenge the views put forward by politicians”.
"Not only does independent participation promote the awareness of democracy, it also enhances the understanding of law and urges the government to clarify and amend the law.” Said Hu Yanhui. Law for many years, however, was second to economic development.
"In China from 1978 to the early 1990s, economic success fostered the development of law, rather than the reverse.” said Li Bo. When formal institutions were lacking, alternative structures evolved to protect economic activities. “[A]lthough there were no defined property rights and no legal basis under the ECL [Economic Contract Law], investors did not worry about the safety of their property rights. The support from the governments had fostered reasonable and predictable returns.”
As China’s economy developed, “deficiencies in the legal system deterred investors and limited economic reforms. Hence, entering into the mid 1990s, law started to play a much bigger role than it did before, more active than responsive”. Labour rights and social security were two areas that saw huge changes as the economy developed and China transitioned to a socialist market economy.
"[L]ow wages, short-term employment and poor working conditions harassed market development and social stability. To address these issues, the state enacted the Labor contract law in 2008. This law recognised workers’ reasonable expectations for a long-term employment relationship, emphasised the importance of written labor contracts and permits collective bargaining. Additionally, the Employment Promotion Act 2007 and the Social Insurance Act 2010 were also enforced, which gave the people legal instruments to ensure their own ‘iron rice bowl’." Said Han Xiaolei.
Unprecedented changes are happening at grass roots levels. People are seeking ways to enforce their rights and increasingly turn to democracy and the law.
Wei Qimin, a real estate lawyer from Guangdong, was one of the independent candidates in 2011. He campaigned to set up a legal clinic and even a website to help petitioners and decrease pressure on the department of letters and visits. During the elections, he proposed that all candidates must speak for at least five minutes, if representatives cannot speak clearly, how are they to work effectively?
In the discussion, students asked European diplomats questions about elections and human rights protection in Europe. The diplomats in turn asked students about their recommendation for improvement of law and democracy in China.
Hu Yanhui closed her speech with a quote from Professor Zhang Qianfan from Peking University who said that, "One vote cannot change anything, but if there are any changes, it starts with this one small vote. And this change has started in China.”