March 16, 2007

China Toddling Towards Private Property Rights

China has passed its first law explicitly protecting the right to private property, a major departure from six decades of varying degrees of Communist rule. The move comes as a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance, as its passage came along with onerous press restrictions on the law itself:

After more than a quarter-century of market-oriented economic policies and record-setting growth, China on Friday enacted its first law to protect private property explicitly.

The measure, which was delayed a year ago amid vocal opposition from resurgent socialist intellectuals and old-line, left-leaning members of the ruling Communist Party, is viewed by its supporters as building a new and more secure legal foundation for private entrepreneurs and the country’s urban middle-class home and car owners.

But delays in pushing it through the Communist Party’s generally pliant legislative arm, the National People’s Congress, and a ban on news media discussion of the proposal, raise questions about the underlying intentions and the governing style of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, experts say. ...

The measure could not pass the legislature, which acts under the party’s authority, without the active support of the top leadership. Yet the conspicuous silence of Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen appears to be a form of tribute to the influence of current and former officials and leading scholars who argue that China’s economic policies have fueled corruption and enriched the elite at the expense of the poor and the environment.

From their reticence to discuss it, we can draw two conclusions. One, capitalism works, and two, that truth doesn't quite sell yet in China. That could create some problems for Hu and Wen when it comes time to use the law in any practical manner.

That can already be seen. Beijing tried to sneak this law under the radar by keeping it out of the Chinese media. Two years ago when the idea of private property rights first came into question, the government widely circulated the proposal to get the maximum amount of feedback. Not this time; academics say that their universities pressured them to stay silent, and barely a peep was heard about it in the Chinese media. When the financial magazine Caijing made it their front-page story, Beijing forced them to recall the issue and reprint it without the article.

The law puts China on the right road, but they will need some time to assimilate what private property rights really mean. It has implications for free speech, too, a point Hu and Wen apparently missed. Caijing's printed issues are also private property, and Caijing should have had the right to sell them in the open market. The mind and soul of a person are also private property, with innate rights, which is why free speech is critical to liberty -- and private property rights.

Let's not be too critical, though. Even if the Chinese government bullied this law into being, its passage has the potential to free millions of people from the yoke of failed statist policy and oppression. It will undoubtedly assist in creating more room for free speech and liberty. Hopefully, it will take China one step closer to the dreams of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, who foresaw a free China.


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