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by Antoaneta Bezlova

China Constitution Now Respects Property, Human Rights -- Maybe (2004)

(IPS) BEIJING -- China's national parliament passed a pioneering property law on Friday which, despite leftist-sounding clauses and hype, fails to safeguard the ownership rights of farmers, more than half of the population.

China's 750 million rural residents cannot own farmland, a legacy of Mao's collectivization in the 1950s which dispossessed and often liquidated big landowners. Instead, they must lease from the state and have little or no recourse when local officials move to take it. The new law does nothing to change this reality.

"How can you enact a piece of national legislation, which is inapplicable to some 60 percent of the country's population," says Wen Tiejun, a senior expert on rural issues at China Renmin University in Beijing. "It only goes to show that China's rural and urban division is going to continue for a long time."

This divide is on sore display on the fringes of China's booming cities where peasants have witnessed close-up the wealth accumulated by their urban fellow countrymen while failing to become prosperous themselves.

In Beijing where the government is proudly preparing to host the 2008 Olympic games, the building boom is blamed for depriving thousands of people of their land. As the capital is expanding its airport, building a new futuristic terminal to enable it to handle 60 million travellers annually, peasants on the city outskirts have been forced out of their land and cheated of their compensation.

"We didn't get even our noise-compensation fee," says a villager from Loutai, which has been slated for eviction and demolition. "Local officials told us they would use the noise-compensation fee paid by the airport developer to build us cheap new housing, but we are worried we will never see the money and we would still be asked to pay a lot to buy the new houses," Gang, a Loutai villager in the Shunyi area who wanted only his first name revealed, complained.

While the new property law is a milestone in China's rapid dismantling of the state-planned economy, its provisions would benefit mainly homeowners in China's cities. Their numbers have risen dramatically in recent years since the government stopped providing free housing in the 1990s. Such housing was a key part of the Communist "cradle-to-grave" welfare system.

Enshrining private property rights in a legislation for the first time since China's Communist takeover in 1949, the law stipulates: "The lawful property of individual person shall be protected by law, and illegally taking possession, looting and destruction of such property by any unit or individual is prohibited."

However symbolic in a country which is still nominally Communist, the new private property law does not alter the supremacy of state ownership. All the land still technically belongs to the state, but in the cities urbanities may now buy and sell their properties under leases of between 50 and 70 years.

In the countryside, by contrast, farmers enjoy only land usage rights over periods of time and not any title deeds that can be bought or sold. Even for the limited time that peasants are allowed to use the land, they are barred from borrowing against it to invest and expand agricultural production.

True, no other piece of legislation has generated so much controversy and debate. Yet the way this property reform ignores Chinese peasants -- the bulk of the country's population -- is hardly the most contentious issue angering opponents of the law.

Ideology has been the buzzword ringing through a record seven readings by top legislators and more than 100 working meetings of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

Old-style leftists have attacked the legislation for straying too far from the Marxist foundations of Communist China and embracing capitalism. They worry the law could lead to a fire sale of state assets, as happened in the Soviet bloc,and have blocked its passage for years,

Gong Xiantian, a leading Marxist economist and critic of the draft law, argues that the law undermines the legal foundation of China's socialist economy which is based on public ownership.

"Equal protection of private and public ownership is the feature of the market economy, not a socialist economy," he says.

Chinese leaders have responded to the leftist concerns by allowing a rare long public discussion. The revised draft of the law includes lengthy paragraphs as to the primacy of the "socialist system" and the "state ownership."

What the new legislation lacks though, advocates of farmers' rights argue, are any provisions that protect farmers from land grabs. Local governments that often work hand in gloves with greedy developers would retain the power to convert agricultural land to other uses if deemed so in the public interest.

"The new law would make little or no difference to the situation in the countryside," says Wen Tiejun, the rural expert.

Many localities rely on these sales to finance their underfunded budgets -- a trend which has led to a wave of rural protest in the country with complaints that they have been unfairly compensated.

Appropriation of land from farmers is the most frequent subject of petitions by Chinese farmers, which when left unanswered, have triggered an increased number of violent protests, researchers have found.

Government officials "should not turn a deaf ear to farmers' requests," warned a senior agricultural research recently. A single petition could lead to a "mass incident" or even a riot, Chen Xiwen, director of the government central group on rural work said.

The ministry of public security said 87,000 mass incidents were reported in 2005, up 6.6 percent on 2004 and 50 percent on 2003. More than 65 percent of "massive incidents" in rural areas are attributed to land expropriation.

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has called land the "core issue" facing Chinese farmers. Last year he vowed harsh punishment for those who seize farmland illicitly. But farmers continue losing land, with official figures stating that nearly 200,000 hectares of rural land are taken from them every year for industrial purposes.

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Albion Monitor   March 15, 2007   (

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