China Looks To Protect Private Property

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 9, 2007

BEIJING, March 8 -- China's legislature began examining a much-debated measure Thursday that is intended to help protect private property in an increasingly well-off society.

Although the Communist Party still believes the state owns all land, the growing economy has meant that private property "has been increasing with each passing day," the draft legislation states, adding that the protection of that property is the "urgent demand of the people."

The latest draft of the property law, almost certain to pass, seeks to strike a delicate balance between the need to continue greasing the wheels of the Chinese economy -- which depends on private investment -- and satisfying old-guard officials reluctant to jettison the socialist ideals they have relied on since the 1949 communist revolution.

"As the reform and opening-up and the economy develop, people's living standards have improved in general, and they urgently require effective protection of their own lawful property accumulated through hard work," Wang Zhaoguo, deputy chairman of the National People's Congress, said in introducing the latest draft of the measure in the legislature.

The legislation has been at least 14 years in the making and has been discussed by the standing committee of the National People's Congress six times.

In a nod to conservative critics who fear that the measure would speed the sell-off of more state enterprises, the legislation would strengthen protections of state-owned assets and prohibit the illegal possession, destruction or looting of state property.

There are multiple references to the need to uphold "the basic socialist economic system" and "regulate the order of the socialist market economy." The Chinese socialist property system "is in essence different from the capitalist property system," the draft stresses.

Chinese leaders are increasingly worried that a growing gap between rich and poor poses a threat to the country's stability. Hundreds of state-owned companies have closed in recent years, putting hundreds of thousands out of work.

Additionally, farmers and even city dwellers are routinely forced from their homes when developers and local officials decide their property would be more profitable as an apartment block, government building or shopping mall.

As with many laws in China, the property measure -- expected to pass by the end of the session March 16 -- could prove difficult to enforce.

"As long as the problem of landownership is not solved, conflicts on unfair land seizure cannot be avoided. Since land is in the hand of the government, a developer can bribe an official and make the official claim that the land is seized for public use," said Liu Xiaobo, a leading political dissident. "If the developer could get the approval from the official, he is legally entitled to seize the land."

Still, Liu said, the legislation has benefits. "This is the first law in our country for property protection. The public can at least cite a specific law when their property rights are violated," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company