On the Beijing campus of the China University of Political Science and Law stands a dramatic monument inscribed with the words of legal expert and former university president Jiang Ping: “Rule of Law for Everyone.”
Jiang’s words carry special weight, even from retirement, because for decades he stood up to—and survived—ideological opposition that nearly crushed his quest for individual rights, academic independence, and free speech in modern China.
He spoke bluntly May 16 at a ceremony marking the university’s sixtieth anniversary, calling on those gathered to pause and reflect on the institution’s shortcomings and set a liberal course for future development.
“Personal independence and academic freedom are the soul of the university,” Jiang declared.
Jiang, 81, served only two years as the university’s president between 1988 and 1990. He apparently left the job in connection with the upheaval surrounding the Tiananmen incident in June 1989.
Even today, alumni and students call him their university’s beloved “dean for life.” In legal circles, he’s known as one of the “Three Legal Teachers” of modern Chinese law, along with Guo Daohui, a member of the advisory committee to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and human rights advocate Li Bu, director of Research Center for Human Rights at Guangzhou University.
Jiang was born in Dalian, Liaoning province, and studied in the Soviet Union, where he served as chairman of the Chinese Student Association before graduating from Moscow State University in 1956. He returned to China to teach at Beijing Institute of Politics and Law, the predecessor of China University of Political Science and Law.
After just a year of teaching, Jiang fell out of favor with the Communist Party and was labeled a rightist. This was a label given intellectuals who appeared to favor capitalism and class division over a collective social system.
Jiang once said his most memorable career experiences surrounded the hardships he faced after being accused of ideological wrongs during the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957.
Jiang was targeted for what party leaders called “serious thoughts of bourgeois democracy and freedom.” Under pressure from party officials, his wife was forced to divorce him just one month after their wedding. Also during this dark period, he was run over by a train and lost a leg.
In a recent interview with Caixin, Jiang said he has since then chosen to “both accept and reject” the rightist label.
“To say I accepted was to say that my mind does have deep thoughts of democracy and freedom. From my participation in the student movement and after applying myself as a media major, I had a strong rationale and concepts for striving for democracy and striving for freedom,” he said.
“To say I didn’t accept it was because I’d never understood why socialism would not want to provide democracy and freedom. Why does saying democracy or freedom make one bourgeoisie? Why is striving for democracy and striving for freedom not good?
“I’ve carried these questions until today,” he said, “and I’ll take them to the end of my life.”
How did Jiang endure? “Those who are truly strong are not without tears,” he said. “They run with tears in their eyes.”
In 1978, Jiang returned to academia to specialize in civil and commercial law. He managed the drafting of China’s Civil Law, participated in the formation of the Company Law and Partnership Enterprises Law, served as a leader for groups that drafted the Trust Law and Contract Law, and was a leader of an expert group that drafted the Property Law and Civil Code, which has yet to be completed.
Jiang, who suffers from the aftereffects of a stroke, has been more inclined to express his views in recent years. As a persistent advocate of the rule of law, he’s frequently invited to public speaking events.
In particular when speaking in public, Jiang emphasizes the spirit behind the rule of law, with its limits on public power and protections for private rights.
“I’ve always thought that if socialism is going to defeat capitalism, it should offer more advantages in freedom or in protecting individual rights. In other words, socialist countries should better protect human rights and should endow people with more freedom.”
Li Shenzhi, a former associate dean of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and economist Wu Jinglian greatly influenced Jiang.
Jiang said Li told him, “You who work with the rule of law will eventually find that the rule of law is inseparable from politics. You cannot get around China’s existing political system.”
Jiang says he’s never forgotten those words. “They led me to be more concerned with the reform of the country’s political system,” he said. “Political reform is the kernel of China’s reform.”
“Li supports a spirit of independence: Don’t surrender to any political pressure. Dare to think independently,” he said. “Wu is a critical spirit: Dare to criticize reality using your own academic conscience.”
Some of Jiang’s important lectures appeared in 2007 in a book entitled I Can Only Cry Out. An anthology of his essays was published the following year in The Cry for Individual Rights.
Jiang said China’s current conditions are more strict and oppressive than in the past. So as a legal scholar with public influence, he said he feels the need to “cry out.”
At a media and law forum in May 2011 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jiang said news reporting “should have the standard of law as its highest principle. There’s nothing else.
“A bottom line for those working in news is that when public power controls the news, it’s better not to speak than to say anything that violates law, accuracy and conscience,” he said.
Jiang said his dream for China remains “the rule of law for everyone.”
“Our ideal when we were young was to build a democratic, free, strong, and prosperous New China,” he said. “Since reform and opening up (began in 1978), we have again been asked to restore this dream and its true colors.
“I think it is human nature to pursue democracy, freedom and human rights.”
Chen Baocheng is a Caixin staff reporter.