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China grants some property rights

Newly assertive condo owners win concessions, but rural landholders are still at the mercy of corrupt officials.

March 16, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — When upwardly mobile residents of this noisy, polluted city bought into the Huilongguan condominium complex several years ago, one of its biggest attractions was a huge swath of green space that the developer pledged to leave untouched.

Three years later, after most of the 7,000 units were sold, things got ugly.

Piles of bricks, sand and other construction materials appeared on the green. In response, residents organized, planting 1,300 trees and setting up a 24-hour guard. But the well-connected developer gave them a harsh lesson about government power and big money in today's China:

The government land registration office refused to let them see records. "Mediators" blatantly sided with the developer. Construction workers beat residents. Police threw several leaders in jail. And the developer put up buildings in the space.

Urban middle-class apartment owners, such as residents of this condo complex, are the biggest winners today, after the National People's Congress passage of China's first law codifying the protection of private property. Analysts say the legislation theoretically puts state and private ownership on equal footing. It passed with 96.9% support from the legislature, largely a rubber stamp for the ruling party.

Experts say the law recognizes homeowner associations, gives residents rights to common areas and provides more tools for fighting developers.

Although a law addressing property rights shows at one level how much has changed in China, experts say it hardly represents radical reform. Politics still often trump legal considerations.

What the legislation does is give legal status to market-oriented changes long evident in Chinese society, benefiting a class of people who are most capable of organizing and may one day challenge the Communist Party's hold on power.

"We have to stand up against these sorts of abuses," said Li Guocheng, 61, a resident of the condo complex. The "green is gone forever," he said, but "this is about justice."

The law does not address protections for poorly educated and weakly organized farmers whom corrupt officials are forcing off rural land in growing numbers.

Officially, this reflects concern that if farmers were allowed to sell land rights, they would sell cheap, becoming destitute in a country with no adequate rural social security system. Others say it indicates the state's reluctance to relinquish power.

"Hopefully, it will strengthen farmers against forced demolitions or seizures," said Lu Guang, an attorney who has represented several such cases. "But local governments will resist. We can't expect too much."

By Chinese standards, the lawmaking process was relatively open. Most laws in China are written by officials or senior Communist Party cadres behind closed doors. But about 14,000 suggestions were considered during the drafting of the property measure, which took almost a decade, including a two-year delay after a prominent critic labeled it unconstitutional.

"With each debate, we saw progress," said Jiang Ping, head of the drafting team and a law professor at Beijing's China University of Political Science and Law. "At times, it's been hard to find common ground with all these viewpoints."

Several of the eight drafts were not made public, and much of the latter-stage maneuvering was done in secret. Furthermore, some critics say, a basic assumption behind the law is that an omniscient government grants privileges to its citizens, not that they have rights. Though the law extends and better defines use rights, land is still owned by the state or local cooperatives acting on its behalf.

"Technically, it was a very good drafting process, much better than you ever see in our Congress," said Patrick A. Randolph, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, who provided advice on its framing. "But there's still an underlying sense you can play with the toys until the state decides it wants to take them away."

Still, Sun Dawu, founder of a poultry and animal feed conglomerate south of Beijing in Hebei province, said passage of the law would be a step forward.

"Having a law that protects everyone's rights, rich and poor, is progress," Sun said at his complex of hatcheries, grain fields, vineyards, a school and a temple to Confucius, his hero.

"At the same time, we still can't put undue trust in any law until we get a healthy judiciary and more rigorous legal tradition," said the entrepreneur, who was jailed for eight months in 2003 for competing against state-owned banks.

Among the reasons it took so long to draft the law are popular concern about the gap between rich and poor and a widespread perception that wealth is closely linked with corruption.

In response to concerns among hard-line Communists, drafters added the qualifier "legal" to most private-property references, signaling that the law won't protect ill-gotten gains.

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