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China introduces landmark property law

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, left, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, center, and President Hu Jintao walk out at the end of the fourth day of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, in Beijing Thursday March 8, 2007. Chinese leaders introduced a proposed landmark law to protect private property, saying Thursday that personal wealth in an increasingly prosperous society requires legal protection. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)

BEIJING --Chinese lawmakers formally introduced a hotly debated law to protect private property Thursday, saying that personal wealth in an increasingly prosperous China requires legal safeguards.

The proposed law marks one of the most explicit attempts to legally protect personal wealth by a government that only a generation ago preached communist egalitarianism and that still routinely intervenes in private lives.

Introducing the bill to the national legislature, Vice Chairman Wang Zhaoguo, a member of the Communist Party's powerful Politburo, said the country's economic and social changes made the law necessary.

"As the reform and opening up of the economy develop, people's living standards have improved in general and they urgently require effective protection of their own lawful property accumulated through hard work," Wang said in a speech to 2,835 deputies of the National People's Congress gathered in the massive Great Hall of the People.

Though the measure is certain to pass the party-dominated congress when its annual session ends March 16, enforcement is likely to run into interference and the notion of private property in a communist-run country remains severely contested.

Ill-defined property rights have allowed local officials to seize businesses, houses and farmland for lucrative real-estate and commercial deals, stunting the growth of private enterprise and angering ordinary Chinese with inadequate compensation.

"When you're at the bottom of society, no one protects your interests," said Zhang Guozhen, a farmer and small businessman from Lingshou Town, 115 miles south of Beijing, who sneaked into the capital this week to protest the seizure of his cement plant 10 years ago.

Ever since, he said, he has campaigned for redress without result, surviving on odd jobs in a nearby city after selling his house two years ago.

Drafts of the property law have been divisively argued for years by liberal reformers who called for sweeping private property protections and conservative communists who want to protect state power.

Joining the campaign for better rights are a growing class of entrepreneurial Chinese whose businesses and investments the communist government increasingly relies on to generate jobs and tax revenues.

A property law was first discussed 14 years ago, legislative Vice Chairman Wang said. In a sign of how much has changed, the Chinese economy has grown six times since then to $2.7 trillion last year, the world's fourth largest. Average incomes for urban Chinese have increased five times, to $1,500.

The 40-page law with 247 articles strikes a balance between state and private interests, laying out definitions of both and also clearly defining private wealth including income, houses, investments and other personal assets.

At the same time, the bill repeatedly attaches the modifier "lawful" to property -- a nod to criticisms by conservatives that the law would accelerate a decade-long campaign to privatize state businesses that they say has enriched officials and entrepreneurs at the expense of workers and farmers.

"Entrepreneurs like me very much support this draft," said Sun Yuqing, a delegate and a manager of a state-run oil refinery in northeast Heilongjiang province. "People at the grassroots -- farmers and workers -- they all hope their interests can be safeguarded."

While approval is not in question, the margin of support is. Delegates to the normally docile legislature have in the past displayed their displeasure with the leadership with sometimes a fifth of deputies abstaining or casting 'no' votes.

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