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Document seeks forgiveness for 'original sin'
By Meng Yan (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-02-09 07:36

A month before the National People's Congress convenes to discuss amending the Constitution to cement the inviolable status of private properties, bosses of private firms have come under the spotlight as an official document in North China's Hebei Province goes even further, seeking forgiveness for their so-called "original sin."

The document was drafted by the political and legal affairs committee of the provincial committee of the Communist Party of China and issued by the Hebei provincial government.

It says that the authorities should not prosecute bosses of private firms if crimes committed in the initial stages of development exceeded the statute of limitation stipulated in the Criminal Code.

Even during prosecution, the provincial authorities suggest lenient or suspended sentences according to the law, depending on the nature and scale of the crimes, their consequences and the repentance of offenders.

The document on "original sin" has generated heated debate nationwide.

The religious term was linked to the private sector, referring to crimes and irregularities committed by private entrepreneurs in the initial development of their businesses and include tax evasion, bribery, illegal money-raising and making shoddy products.

Xu Zhiyong, a 30-year-old lecturer at the Law Department of the School of Humanity Law and Economics at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, says the document is a positive gesture, showing the determination of the local government to further open up and reform.

He considers the document a tendentious restatement of the stipulation in the Criminal Code.

The law says that the statute of limitation for crimes carrying a maximum penalty of no more than five years' imprisonment is five years; 10 years for crimes that attract imprisonment of more than five years but less than 10; and 15 years for crimes carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years or more.

If the maximum punishment for a crime is life imprisonment or death penalty, the statute of limitation is 20 years; after 20 years, prosecutors must get approval from the country's top prosecutors' office.

If private entrepreneurs are investigated even if their irregularities exceeded the statute of limitation, it may lead to disastrous results for their businesses, according to Chen Zexian, a professor of criminal law with the Institute of Legal Study under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

Chen says that some damage might be done to their reputation even if they are proved innocent.

Zhang Houyi, researcher of the Institute of Social Studies under the CASS, says many practices such as speculation, which was deemed illegal two decades ago, are not a crime today since the law has changed with time. China revised its Criminal Code in 1997, wiping off crimes linked to the highly centralized planned economy.

"Our document aims at providing all market participants, including private businesses, with an improved policy environment, better service and more guarantees," says Yan Wuyi, vice-director of the political affairs department of the committee.

However, opponents charge that the decision sacrifices the institution of rule of law for economic development.

Cai Dingjian, a leading constitutional scholar, says the document makes use of the criminal code to exculpate private entrepreneurs of due charges.

He says it differentiates crimes committed by private entrepreneurs in their initial development from other crimes.

Lu Jianping, a professor of criminal law at the Law School of Renmin University of China, says the law should be applied to all individuals and organizations equally. "The private sector doesn't need special treatment if the law is enforced fairly," he says.

Sun Dawu, chairman of the Dawu Agriculture & Animal Husbandry Group in Langwuzhuang of North China's Hebei Province, says he is puzzled about the document.

"I can see the aim of the document is to provide a better policy environment for us, but I can't see the specific benefit, at least not now," Sun says.

Sun was convicted last year of illegally accepting almost US$20 million in deposits from farmers in the area. He was sentenced to three years' jail with a suspension of four years and a fine of roughly US$12,000. His business was ordered to pay a separate fine of US$36,000. Sun sought to raise money on his own when he failed to get loans from local banks.

"I don't know whether that can be classified as original sin," Sun says. "I will further study the document and try to understand more."

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