BEIJING -- Communist-led China took the historic step yesterday of amending its constitution to protect the property rights of capitalists who are driving its economic boom, while promising to focus on helping farmers and millions of others left behind.
The nation's parliament, making changes dictated by the Communist Party, also passed an amendment declaring respect for human rights but not promising free political expression -- a key issue for government critics.
The changes were made as the figurehead National People's Congress closed a 10-day annual session dominated by promises to shift development to the poor countryside, where 800 million Chinese live.
"We should unite all the people of China in focusing on construction and development in order to build a better future," the country's number two leader, Congress's chairman, Wu Bangguo, said in a nationally televised address in the parliament's closing ceremony.
The outcome of the parliament reflected the ruling party's two-track strategy for China's immediate future: heavy new spending to help the rural poor, financed by more economic reform and robust growth, projected this year at 7 percent.
The amendment on private property is the first of its kind since China's 1949 Communist revolution, but it only brings the constitution into line with the country's commercial reality.
China already has laws regulating private property, and the constitution was amended in 1999 to declare private business an "important component" of the economy. Millions of Chinese own businesses and apartments and trade shares on the country's two stock exchanges.
Still, entrepreneurs who are key to plans to create jobs as state industry withers lobbied for constitutional protection. Communist leaders said the amendment, which declares that "private property obtained legally shall not be violated," was essential to future reforms.
The NPC also approved an amendment writing into the constitution the political theory of retired president Jiang Zemin, who invited capitalists to join the ruling party.
Premier Wen Jiabao expressed sympathy for rural Chinese, pledging to step up efforts to help them. Wen sounded the theme of the parliament when he said in his report to its opening session that the government would focus on "putting people first," a phrase repeated frequently by delegates.
"The hardest lives are led by the farmers, the people in the countryside," Wen said yesterday at a news conference.
"What I am most concerned about are the issues most pivotal to our people. These can be solved by reform, innovations, and pushing forward despite difficulties."
Wen, China's chief economic official, acknowledged the challenge of controlling an economy whose growth rate last year hit a sizzling 9.1 percent, prompting fears of inflation. He noted that consumer prices rose while the country's grain production fell.