BEIJING – The most important meeting of the year for the 205 members of China's ruling Communist Party's Central Committee, beginning Monday, will focus on how to rule the country in accordance with law.
That has fed hopes that the party might move to respect the letter and spirit of the constitution, but some legal experts and political analysts say the country's leaders are intent on expanding power, not limiting it.
There may be some efforts at the four-day plenum to discourage rampant corruption in low-level courts, they say, but the key goal will be to build a legal system that protects and strengthens the party's political dominance.
"There is absolutely zero chance that the plenum session will see support for constitutional reform that imposes meaningful checks on party power," said Carl Minzner, a law professor and expert on the Chinese legal system at Fordham Law School in New York.
As usual, this year's plenary session will be held in a conclave in Beijing, and its decisions, expected to be announced after the conclusion, set the broad policy framework for the upcoming year.
Party-controlled media are already gearing up to tout great legal progress to come, but some observers expect the party to continue something it has done since President Xi Jinping took power nearly two years ago: Step up efforts to suppress criticism and dissent.
"The developments over the past year under Xi's leadership have signaled deep disregard for the law as a tool for resolving grievances in an impartial manner," said Maya Wang, researcher with Human Rights Watch. "The detentions and sham trials of activists ... show just how China's legal system has remained an instrument of the party's power."
Yet, the party will seek changes to bring some fairness to the local level, where unrest stemming from lack of justice has flared up into violence.
Last week, a land dispute in a southwestern town left two villagers and six construction workers dead after villagers took up farm tools to fight what they saw as unfair seizure of their lands for a government-backed commercial project. The villagers told state media they have no legal venue in which to seek redress.
In hopes of improving justice at the local level, the plenary meeting is expected to give provincial courts supervisory powers over their county-level peers in the areas of funding and appointments, removing the lower courts from the influence of local authorities.
Other changes may include vetting of judges to ensure they are professionally qualified and making more verdicts available to the public to hold judges accountable for their rulings.
Legal scholar Xie Youping at Fudan University said those incremental changes would be moves in the right direction. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he said.
Yet China's courts reside firmly under the party's control and Communist leaders have repeatedly ruled out adopting the Western notions of an independent judiciary and that all must conform to law.
Contrary to the principles of the rule of law, Chinese law has been molded to the party's will, dissident legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong said.
The rhetoric for rule of law "is only a propaganda slogan that will not be seriously dealt with by the party," Zhang said. Rule of law is "incompatible with an authoritarian regime," he said.
Even if the party should pledge to operate within the law, it could merely be paying the lip service, said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
China's Constitution says no group should be above the law and guarantees rights of free speech and assembly, yet in reality, the party has ruled with legal impunity and, people are routinely detained over political speech.
To help gradually build up the authority of the constitution, some legal scholars have proposed to establish a committee to arbitrate on the constitutionality of laws and regulations, although others warn that the court could still remain within the party's grips.
Still, some scholars are hoping for a declaration, even if it is just a slogan, to serve as a cover to argue for deeper reforms.
The upcoming plenary needs to make a statement that "our party is not a party that opposes constitutional rule," said former official Wu Jiaxiang, adding that the constitution is the supreme law.
Party propaganda appears to run counter to constitutional rule. Last year, a string of editorials appeared in state media, warning that constitutional rule would subvert the party's rule. In recent weeks, party theoreticians have argued that rule of law should not replace China's current political and social system with the party at its apex.
But the pervasive corruption that erodes public trust and threatens party rule is driving the need for further legal reform, said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Ad-hoc anti-graft campaigns that have brought down prominent politicians are only treating the symptoms without tackling the root causes, Li said. "Ultimately it is the legal system that can prevent this kind of outrageous corruption."
Putting the party under the constitution would be a "very important change in ideology that will pave the way for many changes to come," Li said.