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A step further in guarding private property
( 2004-01-19 23:58) (China Daily)

When a revised constitutional article on private property passed the preliminary review of the Standing Committee of National People's Congress (NPC) late last month, many upheld it as a blessing of the country's new, particularly wealthy entrepreneurs.

Holders of this view may have missed the point.

The new draft article reads: "Citizens' lawful private property brooks no violation.'' It obviously raises the tone from the current constitutional statement that says, "The State protects citizens' lawful income, deposit, housing and the ownership of other lawful property.''

The amendment, if passed in the annual NPC session this spring, will provide blanket protection of private property, including that of the wealthiest class.

But it is not likely to justify wealth procured by illegal means, or, in some economists' words, wealth with "original sin.''

The new article does not scrap the word "lawful'' as a prerequisite to constitutional protection. It also shuns some interpreters' suggestion to label private property as "invincible.''

The recent seizure of property from Liu Yong, a Mafia head in the northeastern city of Shenyang, as well as probes into the suspected tax evasion and cases of defraud involving several of the country's wealthiest that happened in recent years, have supported the point that suspect riches will not go away any time soon.

What the new constitutional clause does guarantee is the restriction of unwarranted infringement of private property, which may soothe private entrepreneurs' worries about ineffective protection of their growing wealth.

Besides being subjected to ad hoc charges and at times extortion by local officials, private entrepreneurs find that the law's protection of their wealth is, in some ways, inferior to that of the State assets.

China's criminal law provides very serious charges for embezzlement and misuse of public money, whereas charges for corruption and embezzling in private firms are less harsh.

If the revision is passed in the legislative session that takes place in early March, it will still takes additional time to rewrite relevant codes and correct civil servants' behaviour.

However, the change of the Constitution in itself reflects the nation's increasing respect for private property. Based on that consensus, additional adjustments involving legal and administrative aspects will be sure to happen in the future.

Many may have not noticed the subtle rhetoric of the amendment's property article. A list that limits the scope down to specific private property such as houses, salaries and bicycles is not included.

The connotation is that individuals can legally possess major economic resources such as machinery and workshops. Known as "means of production,'' these used to be excluded from private ownership under China's old economic ideologies.

The article will give private businesses a legitimate and solid status in a country where State-owned enterprises have dominated the economy for decades.

A more encouraging signal is that the Constitution is going to clearly define the State's power over private property, which is vital to everyone, not just the rich.

Despite the overall growth of income in recent years, citizens may have been occasionally troubled by unwarranted charges or fines levied by local authorities.

Worse still, amid the relocation mania in some cities and townships, governments have requisitioned private homes and farmland to make way for commercial projects, and have paid only meagre compensation.

Effective legal protection is particularly important to disadvantaged people, whom otherwise could not challenge the authorities.

Whatever loopholes the current legal system has, the constitutional revisions will probably lead to improvements all around, but especially to narrowing violations involving private property by power.

The improvements are awaited by both the rich and those who live from hand to mouth.

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