Key Chinese Communist Party meeting opens in Beijing

People wait to enter Beijing's Tiananmen Square on a hazy Monday, Oct 20, 2014. Leaders of China's ruling Communist Party opened a highly-anticipated meeting on Monday as state media emphasised the need to strengthen the country's legal system.
People wait to enter Beijing's Tiananmen Square on a hazy Monday, Oct 20, 2014. Leaders of China's ruling Communist Party opened a highly-anticipated meeting on Monday as state media emphasised the need to strengthen the country's legal system. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - Leaders of China's ruling Communist Party opened a highly-anticipated meeting on Monday as state media emphasised the need to strengthen the country's legal system.

The meeting, known as the Fourth Plenum, brings together the party's 205-strong Central Committee and around 170 reserve members, along with officials from bodies including its much-feared internal watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Authorities announced in July that the theme of the meeting would be "rule of law" - although experts caution that in China the phrase actually refers to a greater centralisation of control by the ruling party, rather than a separation of powers.

"When the Chinese leaders talk about the rule of law, they almost always are talking about some kind of enhanced party control over officials," University of Hong Kong law professor Michael Davis told AFP.

"'Rule by the party' is kind of the 'rule of law'," he added. "What happens very often is that they define the terms of a law... in keeping with goals of the moment." The state-run China Daily newspaper wrote in a preview of the meeting Monday: "The session is expected to speed up the construction of governance by law from the top level and, by improving the system, to promote social justice for the country." In a separate editorial the paper called for party leaders to crack down on the "abuse of power", which it said "makes it impossible for fairness to prevail" in China's economy.

"The power-worshipping mentality among government and Party officials must be eliminated," the China Daily wrote. "This is a core goal of the leadership." China has seen a broad crackdown on dissent since party chief Xi Jinping came to power two years ago, and the meeting comes as authorities arrest an increasing number of lawyers.

The conclave "is widely expected to set the tone for the (Communist Party) to promote rule of law in China in an all-rounded manner under new circumstances", the official Xinhua news agency said.

The gathering, typically held at a Beijing hotel, is also expected to take action against Zhou Yongkang, the powerful former domestic security tsar who fell to Xi's much-publicised anti-corruption campaign, Yun Jie of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Global Times newspaper that the exposure of graft cases has become the "new norm" in China, and "relevant rules" were needed to address the problem.

But the paper, which has close ties to the ruling party, said the leadership's goals could not be achieved overnight.

"Democracy and the rule of law cannot be fulfilled in a 'Great Leap Forward' way," it wrote, referring to Mao Zedong's late-1950s industrialisation campaign that triggered widespread starvation. "We must build them step-by-step." It added that the emergence of "radical voices" regarding the rule of law "discloses discontent toward the system".