China Gets a Property Rights Law

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The annual two-week session of the National People's Congress — China's nominal parliament — ended Friday with characteristic efficiency. The 3,000 delegates to what is effectively the legislative arm of the ruling Communist Party took less than a minute to vote in a much ballyhooed new property law, according to reports in state-controlled media. It was a speedy finish to an agonizingly long gestation for the law, which for the first time enshrines the rights of private individuals to own property.

Although it marks an important step in the country's slow metamorphosis from Leninist monolith into a uniquely Chinese amalgam of authoritarian socialism and chaotic capitalism, the travails required to secure passage of the new law underline the difficulties China's rulers face as they attempt to fashion a coherent legal and financial system for the country. It has taken 13 years and eight readings (only three are technically — and in most cases, practically — required) to get the bill successfully passed. It was originally scheduled to pass last year, but was dropped after Party conservatives (diehard Maoists who felt that the old socialist ideals were being expunged in an unseemly stampede to make money) started a signature campaign against it, protesting that it would undermine the country's socialist system.

In fact, of course, reforming the old socialist system is exactly the point of the law, individual property rights being a core tenet of a functioning capitalist economy. Last year, conservative voices had enough residual clout to get the legislation dropped from consideration. This year, in an evident move to quash dissent, all discussion of the property law was banned. When the respected weekly Caijing defied the ban and drafted a cover story on the law, authorities forced the magazine to drop the story at the last minute. That Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao were forced to go to such extreme measures to ensure the law wasn't scuppered again this year is a worrying sign that the conservatives still wield substantial influence.

(Because of the ban on discussion, draft copies of the new law have yet to be released and it remains unclear exactly how much real protection will be given to individual property rights. All land in China is, in any case, owned by the state, and individuals can only claim right to a 70-year lease on buildings — something the new law won't change.)

The problems faced by the property law were an echo of those encountered by a less controversial piece of bankruptcy legislation passed last August. Due to come into effect this June, the law appears on first glance reassuringly similar to legislation in the U.S., laying out complex provisions under which companies (but not individuals) can file for bankruptcy, procedures to be followed, rights of creditors etc. But with the application of the law dependent on China's notoriously uneven legal system — where corruption allegations are widespread and judicial independence rare — some experts say it remains a token half-measure.

After passing the property law (2,826 for, 37 against, 22 abstentions) NPC delegates dutifully approved several other measures with equal celerity, then trooped out under the imposing columns of the Great Hall of the People and boarded scores of buses waiting in an otherwise deserted Tiananmen Square. In a subsequent press conference before hundreds of reporters and photographers, Chinese Premier Wen wasn't asked about the property law. He was, however, asked about an article he penned recently that appeared to argue that it could be a century before China was ready for democracy. While Wen didn't confirm that interpretation exactly, he was at pains to stress that China's transition in all areas — democracy, the law, commerce, culture — would be very gradual and take "a long historical period." Let's hope he didn't mean it will be a century before a fully functioning, integrated set of commercial laws come into effect. Unlike NPC delegates, companies in China have a choice about how they vote. Eventually some may choose to do so with their feet.