BEIJING — When the Communist victory was still fresh and relatively pure in the war-weary land of China, about the most serious charge that could be made against someone was that they were "counterrevolutionary."
But nearly 50 years after the Communists swept into power full of revolutionary righteousness, lawmakers here say they are prepared to strike from the books all "counterrevolutionary" crimes--the same laws used over the decades to prosecute and jail thousands of political prisoners.
A standing committee of the National People's Congress has made the recommendation and, if the Congress agrees at its next full session in March, some of China's most onerous and capricious laws will cease to exist.
The proposed changes in the criminal code are part of a general reform of China's laws by the National People's Congress under the leadership of its progressive and ambitious chairman, Qiao Shi. They follow sweeping changes in the country's criminal procedure laws, which take effect today.
When they were announced, the criminal procedure reforms won couched praise from some of the Beijing regime's harshest critics.
"The most positive changes," said a spokesman for Human Rights Watch/Asia in New York, "are a move toward acknowledgment of the principle of presumption of innocence; improved access of the accused to legal counsel; more stringent limits on time in detention before formal arrest; limits on the power of public security bureaus to act without supervision; and a de jure change in application of the death penalty."
Likewise, international legal scholars, long critical of China's abuse of the ideologically based laws to jail political prisoners, cautiously welcome the proposed changes in the counterrevolutionary statutes--some of the oldest laws on the books--as a step in the right direction. If enacted, these changes are likely to take effect Jan. 1, 1998.
"Any change moving away from revolution to a more normal, rational approach is welcome," said Byron Weng, who teaches courses in government and law at Chinese University in Hong Kong. "It makes revolution less sacrosanct."
But some human rights activists, claiming that at least 3,000 people convicted of counterrevolutionary crimes remain in prisons, dismiss the reform as a mostly cynical public relations gesture by the government as it continues to tighten screws on China's beleaguered dissident community.
Xiao Qiang, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights in China organization, noted that most of the political crimes covered under the old counterrevolutionary statutes are now under the rubric "jeopardizing state security."
Indeed, the recent prosecution and imprisonment of internationally celebrated dissidents, longtime democracy champion Wei Jingsheng and 1989 student leader Wang Dan, were on charges of "conspiracy to subvert the government."
"The change of name is nothing more than old wine in a new bottle," Xiao said. "No matter what they choose to call it, it is clear that the Chinese authorities have been using legislation as a weapon against grass-roots human rights and democracy activists with increasing frequency in recent years."
Under China's current criminal code, counterrevolutionary crimes are defined as "acts endangering the People's Republic of China committed with the goal of overthrowing the political power of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist system."
Among the crimes covered under the old law were acts ranging from "practicing feudal superstition" to hijacking airplanes and streetcars.
Under the proposed changes, most of the same acts would be covered under an array of criminal and administrative laws.
Qi Shigui, director of the Shanghai People's Congress and one of the members of the committee that proposed the changes, recently told the official New China News Agency that it will "not only achieve the purpose of consolidating state power but also [help] combat such crimes more forcefully."
How the changes in China's criminal statutes are received depends--as does much of what passes for reform in contemporary China--on how willing the observer is to accept the incremental, glacial movement toward the establishment of a civil society here.
The most positive spin from foreign analysts is that while China's laws continue to be used as instruments of state suppression, just having them on the books is a positive step that may someday result in more permanent reform.
"Many in China recognize the importance of developing a more predictable, law-based system," said University of Michigan political science professor Kenneth Lieberthal, an expert on China's government. "The proposed measure, while likely more symbolic than substantive, moves a small step in the right direction."