Why has the Chinese Communist Party begun emphasizing the importance of virtue in governance, and what can it hope to accomplish through this move? This question was at the heart of the 2015 Clarke lecture, delivered on Wednesday, October 21, by Zhiping Liang.
Liang, an eminent Chinese scholar of the history of legal ideas, sociological jurisprudence, and comparative law, currently serves as a research professor and deputy director of the Institute of Chinese Culture at the Chinese National Academy of Arts and as director of Hongfan Legal and Economic Studies.
“Professor Liang has united many scholars of different points of view and from many different fields and has cultivated a generation of young Chinese scholars. For that reason, he’s regarded as one of the great inspirational teachers for young students in Chinese law schools,” said Eduardo M. Peñalver, Allan R. Tessler Dean and professor of law, in his introduction to Wednesday’s lecture. “His Clarke Lecture today . . . is timely and important for understanding current Chinese political and legal affairs.”
Liang’s lecture, “Rule of Virtue: Understanding the Rule of Law Agenda in Contemporary China,” addressed a 2014 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document titled “CCP Central Committee Decision Concerning Several Major Issues in Comprehensively Advancing Governance According to the Law.” His particular focus was a section of this decision expressing a commitment to “persisting in integrating ruling the country according to the law and ruling the country according to virtue” and asserting that “the governance of state and society require both law and virtue to play a role.”
This statement raised some questions for Liang. “What does it mean for the CCP to propose a rule of virtue?” “What problems is the CCP trying to resolve by turning to a tradition that ended with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty more than a hundred years ago?” “How is the rule of virtue possible today?”
Since 1949, said Liang, the CCP has swung between the rule of law and arbitrary rule. One problem that may be motivating the CCP in its current promotion of virtue is “social collapse,” the degeneration of community and morality as hypocrisy, corruption, and hedonism flourish. He suggested that, faced with this situation, the party has found that simply appealing to the rule of law is insufficient.
Liang examined the CCP’s need to bolster its legitimacy, noting that the Party has failed to sustain the people’s faith in communism. He suggested that the Party is now seeking to cultivate faith in the rule of law. If the Party is to do this effectively, he argued, it “must regard the people as moral subjects, respecting their choices and helping to realize their dreams.” Party members, and particularly members of the judiciary, must also set a good example by respecting the rule of law themselves. Additionally, the Party must recognize the autonomy of citizens and social organizations if it expects them to adhere to principles of morality and virtue.
“In short,” he concluded, “to realize the rule of virtue, one must acknowledge and respect diversity, stress plurality rather than monism, and give priority to harmony rather than uniformity. They represent two different orders.”
Liang’s presentation was followed by commentary from two Cornell Law faculty members. Michael C. Dorf, the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law, suggested a couple different ways of interpreting the CCP’s appeal to virtue. In an optimistic view, he said, the development might foster civil society institutions, leading to the creation of a more pluralistic society. In a more pessimistic view, the Party may simply end up promoting “rule by law,” becoming less arbitrary in its governance but without concern for the quality of the laws it puts in place. In this “thin” version of the rule of law, virtue is expressed merely through being “law abiding.”
Xingzhong Yu, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Professor in Chinese Law, began his comments with a little context on the CCP decision, noting that “this decision is much more important than any law in China, including the constitution.” Yu went on to examine various means by which a government might foster legal conscience, including coercion, imitation, persuasion, and participation. The last “is probably the way to go ahead,” he said, suggesting that the people need to be able to participate meaningfully in the legal system rather than relying on connections and bribes for dispute resolution.
The lecture ended with Liang’s response to the commentators. In addressing Yu’s comments, he dipped into ancient history to consider China’s very long tradition of virtue as a principal of governance and social conduct. He noted how interesting it is that the CCP, which was predicated on the dismantling of tradition and history, is now mining history for sources of legitimacy. The lecture was followed by a reception, during which audience members had the chance to pepper Jiang with their questions.
Each year the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture brings a star scholar to Cornell to deliver a major public lecture. Funded by a gift to Cornell Law School from Jack and Dorothea Clarke, the program seeks to expand the purview of legal scholarship and to develop new ways of thinking about transnational law, politics, and culture.