The Chinese Communist Party ended a four-day closed-door plenary session of its Central Committee last week with the adoption of a communique pledging to “comprehensively advance the rule of law.”

The document said that the party’s major tasks are to improve a “socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics,” to strengthen implementation of the Constitution, to promote administration by law and to improve judicial credibility, among other things.

With the new communique, President Xi Jinping, who has been pushing a vigorous anti-corruption drive, apparently hopes to strengthen his party’s centripetal appeal so that people feel inclined to rally around it.

But the possibility cannot be ruled out that the party, which is to lead the reform drive, will be above the law since the party has made it clear that it will remain in overall control of the judiciary. The Chinese leadership needs to keep in mind that the rule of law and democratization in general cannot be separated. The promised reform should not be used as a means to reinforce the one-party rule in China. It should be carried out as part of larger efforts for democratizing China’s overall political system.

Since taking up the top party job in November 2012, Xi has pursued a campaign to eradicate corruption irrespective of the positions of people targeted, as he said he would “strike both tigers and flies.”

In late July, the party launched an investigation of Zhou Yongkang, a former domestic security chief and a No. 9 official under then President Hu Jintao’s leadership as a member of the standing committee of the party’s politburo, for “grave violations of discipline.” The investigation of a former member of the politburo standing committee was unprecedented except for trials of former high-ranking officials related to the Great Cultural Revolution.

The plenary session endorsed a decision to deprive six former close aides to Zhou of their party membership. Zhou’s investigation was preceded by the banishment in June of Xu Caihou, former vice president of China’s Military Commission and the highest-ranking uniformed military official, from the party membership. Xu was subsequently sent up to the prosecution on corruption charges.

Xi has received a certain degree of support from people for his efforts to crack down on corrupt high-ranking party and military officials.

The central committee’s emphasis on the rule of law appears to be aimed at impressing people with the legitimacy of his anti-graft campaign.

As the plenary session was going on, the party organ People’s Daily carried a propaganda piece on its front page about the party leadership’s efforts to promote “the socialist rule of law,” which it stressed will help protect human rights and control environmental disruptions, corruption and food contamination. Such an article from the party organ sheds light on people’s strong dissatisfaction over these problems and on the party leadership’s desire to get their support by emphasizing the rule of law.

The Chinese leadership, meanwhile, continues a strong regimentation, as seen in the sentencing in January of anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison and a ruling in August that gave a life term to Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar advocating for the rights of Muslim Uighur people.

Beijing also maintains a hardline stance on the pro-democracy student demonstrations in Hong Kong.

As long as the Communist Party remains in overall control of the judiciary and decisions for launching corruption probes on high-ranking officials continue to be in the hands of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China will be unable to establish a true rule of law.

For the rule of law to take root in China, a system must be established that will subject everyone — including people in the highest echelons of the party — to investigation when violations are suspected.

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