Law Explainer: China’s State Medals and State Honorary Titles (UPDATED)

UPDATE (Sept. 17, 2019): On Tuesday, the NPCSC unanimously approved a decision conferring State honors on 42 individuals: 8 “Medal of the Republic” recipients, 6 “Medal of Friendship” recipients, and 28 recipients of various State honorary titles. In a presidential order dated the same day, Xi Jinping formally conferred the honors on their recipients.

Notable recipients of the Medal of the Republic include Tu Youyou, 2015 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine; and Yuan Longping, known in China as the “Father of Hybrid Rice.” The recipients of State honorary titles include individuals who have made great contributions to science, art, and education, among other fields, as well as those who are recognized as “heroes” or “role models” for their personal feats. Of note, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, was given the State honorary title of “Outstanding Contributor to ‘One Country, Two Systems'” [“一国两制”杰出贡献者]. Among the Medal of Friendship recipients are current Cuban leader Raúl Castro and former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Finally, some stats. Just over a quarter (11) of the recipients are female. Among the 36 Chinese citizen recipients, only 7 are ethnic minorities and all but 3 are members of the Communist Party. Ten recipients have been awarded the honors posthumously.

In line with our earlier prediction, the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) will convene for a one-day special session on September 17, the Council of Chairpersons decided on Tuesday. The sole item on the special session’s agenda is a draft decision to confer State honors and honorary titles, presumably on this list of 36 nominees, to celebrate the 70th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic. Below we briefly overview the history of China’s State honors system and the current legal scheme. We will update this post once the conferral decision is adopted next week.

Historical Overview

China’s efforts to establish a State honors system date back to the very beginning of the People’s Republic. The 1949 Central People’s Government Organic Law [中央人民政府组织法] vested the Central People’s Government Commission—the NPCSC’s predecessor—with the power to prescribe and award State medals and honorary titles (see art. 7, item 8). Similar language is found in China’s first Constitution adopted in 1954. It empowered the NPCSC to “prescribe and decide on the conferral of medals and honorary titles of the State” (art. 31, item 14), which would then be formally conferred by the President in accordance with the NPCSC’s decisions (art. 40). In 1955, the NPCSC (in two decisions) established various State medals for two categories of veterans: (1) those who have meritoriously fought in the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War; and (2) those have performed meritorious service in “protecting the nation and modernizing national defense.” A third decision specified that category #2 included veterans who have meritoriously served in the Korean War. But for reasons we could not ascertain, only category #1 veterans—totaling over 60,000—actually received the medals.

From the very beginning, State honors have been inextricably linked to military ranks. The medals and the insignias were established, designed, and conferred together in the 1950s. Due to this close relationship, the State honors system was also doomed when the military ranks system was scrapped in 1965 for being “bourgeois” and promoting obsession with personal fame and hierarchy. State honors were not awarded again after 1955, and were eventually left out of the 1975 Constitution, adopted during the Cultural Revolution.

China’s two post-Cultural Revolution Constitutions restored the State honors system—with the 1982 Constitution (see art. 67, item 1; art. 80) bringing back the relevant language from the 1954 Constitution. Until recently, the system had retained its predominantly military character. When the NPCSC last exercised its constitutional authority to decide on the conferral of State honors in 1988, it awarded “Meritorious Service Medals” [功勋荣誉章] to certain military retirees. Civilian honors (e.g., May 1 Labor Medal [五一劳动奖章], Morality Models [道德模范]) are indeed being conferred by a variety of governmental or quasi-governmental bodies, though not in accordance with the constitutional State honors scheme (i.e., NPCSC decision followed by Presidential conferral).

To consolidate such varied practices and establish a comprehensive State honors system, authorities started drafting a special law on state medals and honorary titles in the late 1980s. Such a bill was then submitted to the NPCSC in 1993, but was shelved after only a single review because legislators sharply disagreed on whether State honors should be awarded posthumously. Drafting restarted in the 2000s, and accelerated after the Party’s 2014 Fourth Plenum decided to “enact a Law on State Honors and State Honorary Titles, to honor those distinguished individuals who have made outstanding contributions.”

A year later, the 12th NPCSC approved the Law on State Medals and State Honorary Titles [国家勋章和国家荣誉称号法] (“State Honors Law”) in December 2015.

Current Legal Scheme

As its name suggests, the State Honors Law governs only State medals and State honorary titles. It is supplemented by the Regulations on Recognizing Achievements and Honors [国家功勋荣誉表彰条例] (“Regulations”), which also governs other types of honors, such as Party and military honors. Together, these two instruments lay down comprehensive rules on State honors, including their eligibility requirements, selection and conferral procedures, and accompanying benefits. Here we focus on the rules relating to State medals and State honorary titles.

Under the State Honors Law, State medals and State honorary titles are “the highest honors of the State” (art. 2). The Law establishes two State medals:

  • the Medal of the Republic [共和国勋章], to be awarded to “distinguished individuals who have made enormous contributions and performed remarkable feats in the building of socialism with Chinese characteristics and in defending the State” (id. art. 3, para. 1); and
  • the Medal of Friendship [友谊勋章], to be awarded to “foreigners who have made outstanding contributions to China’s socialist modernization and the promotion of Chinese-foreign exchanges and cooperation, or preservation of world peace” (id. art. 3, para. 2).

Unlike the medals, the names of State honorary titles are not specified in the Law. Instead, their names will be determined by the NPCSC upon deciding to confer them (id. art. 4, para. 2). The honorary titles are to be conferred on “distinguished individuals who have made major contributions to and enjoy renown in” various fields, such as education, health, and sports. The honorary titles are generally prefixed with “People’s” [人民] (id.), such as “People’s Scientist” and “People’s Educator,” depending on the recipient’s occupation (Regulations art. 8).

The Medal of the Republic and State honorary titles are normally conferred every five years, on the quinquennial or decennial anniversaries of the PRC’s founding (id. art. 9). They may also be awarded without delay if necessary (id.). The Medal may be awarded through either “select conferral” [评授] or “general conferral” [普授] (id. art. 9, para. 1). Under the former method, eligible candidates would be ranked and the best among them selected, whereas under the latter, the Medal would be awarded to everyone who satisfies certain criteria based on the “tasks and characteristics of a particular historical period” (id.). State honorary titles are generally awarded using the “select conferral” method (id. art. 9, para. 2). Either way, proposed recipients must first be approved by the Party before being submitted to the NPCSC for a decision (id. art. 10).

What about the Medal of Friendship? This Medal is its own species. Because the President has the constitutional authority to “conduct State affairs” (P.R.C. Const. art. 80), the State Honors Law permits the President to “directly” confer the Medal on “individuals such as foreign dignitaries and international friends [国际友人]” (art. 8) when engaging in diplomatic activities—even though he must otherwise act (procedurally) in accordance with the NPCSC’s decisions.[1] (Substantively, the NPCSC would be rubber-stamping the President’s decisions, made in his capacity as the Party Central Committee’s General Secretary). So far, the President has exercised his article 8 authority on two occasions: awarding the Medal to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 and to Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019.

State medals and State honorary titles are enjoyed by their recipients for life (id. art. 13). They may be revoked, however, if their recipients “seriously damage the reputation” of the honors by committing crimes or by otherwise seriously violating the law or discipline (id. art. 14). The honors come with “a combination of spiritual motivation and material benefits” (albeit “primarily” the former) (Regulations art. 3, item 5). For instance, the recipients of State medals and State honorary titles will see their names and accomplishments recorded in a State Book of Achievements [国家功勋簿] (State Honors Law art. 10), will be invited to State celebrations and other major events (id. art. 11), and will have their achievements publicized by the government (id. art. 12).

On the issue that divided the legislators in 1993—whether State honors should be awarded posthumously—the Law said yes, but with a caveat. Only those eligible individuals who pass away after the Law takes effect (on January 1, 2016) may be posthumously awarded State medals or State honorary titles (art. 16).

After the NPCSC adopts the previously mentioned decision next week, Xi Jinping will sign and issue certificates, and then formally confer the State honors on their recipients in a ceremony to be held on the eve of the National Day (October 1) this year (see id. arts. 7, 9). We will update this post with information on those recipients when it becomes available.

[1] Chen Guogang, The Birth of the Law on State Medals and State Honorary Titles [国家勋章和国家荣誉称号法诞生记], Legal Daily (Jan. 29, 2019) (defending the constitutionality of article 8 of the Law).

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