Chinese Lawmakers Approve Measure to Protect Private Property Rights

Premier Wen Jiabao did not mention the property law in a lengthy government report outlining his 2007 program.
Premier Wen Jiabao did not mention the property law in a lengthy government report outlining his 2007 program. (By Elizabeth Dalziel -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 17, 2007

BEIJING, March 16 -- China's legislature passed a controversial law designed to protect private property rights Friday in what legal experts called a milestone on the path toward a market economy.

The legislation stopped short of abrogating the principle that all land belongs to the state, a fundamental part of the communist system put in place after Mao Zedong's rise to power in 1949. But it broke ground by establishing new protections for private homes and businesses and for farmers with long-term leases on their fields.

These goals had long been sought by the entrepreneurs who now account for more than half of China's production, by the swiftly climbing number of urban families who have bought their own apartments and by the millions of farmers whose croplands have come under growing pressure from real estate developers.

"This law speeds up our market economy development," said Chen Shu, a member of the National People's Congress and secretary general of the Guangzhou Lawyers Association, who took part in drafting the legislation over the past several years.

Jiang Ping, former president of the China University of Political Science and Law and a scholar who advised officials drawing up the law, told the official New China News Agency that it is significant because it helps codify a property law system that has been evolving through regulation in recent years as the country moves away from socialism.

"Only when people's lawful property is well protected will they have the enthusiasm to create more wealth and will China maintain its economic development," Jiang said.

Because the new law seeks to balance protection for private and state-owned property -- a significant change in China, where people still learn communist theory in school -- a group of former officials and influential academics tried to organize opposition to its passage. Similar opposition, reaching into Communist Party ranks, led President Hu Jintao's government to pull back an earlier draft of the bill during last year's legislative session. The law has been under discussion in one form or another since 2002.

The opponents praised the new protections for farmers in the law that passed Friday, particularly the right to sue to protect fields against expropriation. But they expressed fear that the law will also be used by dishonest businessmen and officials to solidify the state enterprise takeovers that have blossomed over the past two decades, often in crooked deals.

Underlying their concern was a more general unease that the government was eroding the long-standing socialist principle that state ownership comes first in China.

"In the property law, state assets and private assets are put on the same level, which I think is totally wrong and even irrational," said Gong Hantian, a Beijing University law professor who has advised the government on legal matters.

"The reason China has such a fast-growing economy is that we have a very strong public sector. . . . Privatization for a socialist country like China is not a gospel, but a disaster," he said.

Gong wrote an open letter of opposition, which he said was endorsed by 3,000 intellectuals and former officials, and posted it on the Internet last month. His comments revived the debate that had flared last year. But after countless meetings and adjustments, Hu's government decided that the debate had gone on long enough and that the law should be passed without further delay.

Two members of the National People's Congress executive bureau were assigned to each provincial delegation to ensure that members understood the importance of passing the law and to try to make sure that no opposition developed, according to a Chinese journalist who covered the session.

The legislative body, which traditionally gives overwhelming approval to government measures once they are decided on by the Communist Party, endorsed the law Friday with only token opposition. Officials said 2,799 voted in favor, 52 opposed and 37 abstained.

To muffle the criticism, Communist Party censors had barred China's media from covering the disagreements. Gong's petition was ordered off the Internet, and the Beijing-based magazine Cai Jin was forbidden to distribute last week's issue because it contained discussion of the controversy.

The resulting irony was that the Communist Party, having silenced its most faithfully communist members at home, forced them to turn to foreign journalists to air their views, which then bounced back on foreign-based Web sites. At his book-lined Beijing University office, Gong was busy through the week receiving foreign television crews and newspaper correspondents.

In keeping with the government's desire to walk softly on the issue, Premier Wen Jiabao did not mention the property law in a lengthy government report outlining his 2007 program. Nor did he refer to it in a two-hour news conference Friday during which he gave an exhaustive account of his efforts to improve the lives of Chinese people as the country undergoes economic transformation.

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