ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Last month in Shanghai, a university suspended a professor from teaching. Among his political offenses was that he urged the Communist Party to respect China's constitution. That tactic is part of a growing push to make China's government more accountable to its people by using the country's own constitution against the ruling party.
From Shanghai, NPR's Frank Langfitt explains.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I met Zhang Xuezhong in the same coffee house where people from his school, East China University of Political Science and Law, told him he was no longer welcome in the classroom.
ZHANG XUEZHONG: (Through translator) They said this was the decision of the university work unit, because views I expressed in public violated the constitution, the teacher's law and the higher education law.
LANGFITT: Zhang is a 34-year-old with spiky, disheveled hair. He'd argued on the Internet that China's government needs to build a real rule of law, one to which even the party is accountable, as well as a system of checks and balances. One way to start, he said, is to live up to the promises made in China's 1982 constitution.
When officials told Zhang he'd broken the law, he told them they had it all wrong:
XUEZHONG: (Through translator) I said, you're just doing this to put a crime to what I say. This isn't reasonable. Exercising my right to express my views doesn't break the law, because freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the constitution.
LANGFITT: Zhang is right. It's in Article 35, along with freedom of the press, assembly, association and demonstration - all things the party has never observed.
Zhang says pressing officials do adhere to China's constitution is a way to outflank them.
XUEZHONG: (Through translator) If you ask directly for democracy, it's pretty sensitive and you won't get a response. Some scholars now call for constitutionalism. It's more strategic as it avoids the issue of a one-party or a multiparty system. It calls on the government to at least abide by the laws made by itself.
LANGFITT: Reformers have pushed for a genuine constitutional government in the past. But they re-kindled the argument this year in hopes the party's incoming leadership might respond. Instead, at least 200 state-controlled publications ran articles criticizing the call for constitutionalism.
Joseph Cheng teaches political science at City University of Hong Kong.
JOSEPH CHENG: Their arguments are that constitutionalism is something Western. It has nothing to do with China. They will even say that constitutionalism is a kind of conspiracy.
LANGFITT: The journal Red Flag said the ultimate goal of constitutionalists is to push the party from power. So, who was behind all the attack pieces? It's hard to know. Most of the authors used pseudonyms. Pseudonyms like: Ma Zhongcheng, which means: Marxism Loyalty, in Chinese.
Joseph Cheng says they wanted to make a point, but hide their tracks.
CHENG: They understand that this is not something popular. Their true identity would indicate their affiliations, which will then be traced back to top leaders.
ZHIWU CHEN: I'm Zhiwu Chen, professor of finance at the Yale School of Management.
LANGFITT: Chen, a trained economist from China, has publicly argued for a constitutional system during a visit to Beijing, not just for political reasons but practical ones.
Now that China is the world's second-largest economy, the government spends trillions of dollars in public money with little oversight.
CHEN: It's just crazy. It's much better to be the president of China than any other country, because you get to have so much say over so much money and so many things. And yet you're not subject to much scrutiny or checks and balances.
LANGFITT: Chen says a big reason some officials fight such a system is fear. Fear that independent courts, which currently answer to the party, will expose mass corruption.
CHEN: It's human nature to fight to try to stay on to such privileged powers. But on the other hand, you know, Chinese people are not stupid. Chinese people are very smart.
LANGFITT: There is no sign China's new leaders are interested in political reform now. But Chen says as Chinese grow more sophisticated, they'll continue to press for the oversight and protections afforded by a constitutional system. He thinks it's just a matter of time; although at the rate things are going, perhaps a very long one.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.