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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 March, 2004, 14:58 GMT
China's parliament to debate rule of law

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

At its annual meeting in Beijing this week China's parliament is considering important constitutional changes that could serve to rein in the overwhelming powers of the Communist Party.

The new party leadership, formally installed in their government posts at last year's meeting, have already approved the unprecedented moves to give constitutional protection to private property and human rights.

Delegates in Great Hall of People
The big debate: rule by law or rule by party?
Over the coming days these and other new laws will be ratified by delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) and its even tamer companion body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), as they are feted in the Great Hall of the People.

The thousands of handpicked delegates from around the country will also applaud and approve a lengthy "work report" by prime minister Wen Jiabao, setting out the achievements of the past year.

Controversial

While some of the problems thrown up by China's spectacular economic growth, such as corruption and a growing wealth gap, may be highlighted in discussion groups on the sidelines of the main meetings, the delegates have little power to change communist party policy.

People will be able to use it to defend their property from plunder by the state
Liu Junning, political scientist
But the proposed constitutional revisions go to the heart of a raging debate over the supremacy of the party and whether its officials should be subject to the rule of law - giving this year's meeting at least the potential to be more controversial than usual.

The new clause on property is a key step in making capitalism the economy's driving force. It puts private assets on an equal footing with public property, which is considered "sacred and inviolable".

Overdue

Given that the party has been encouraging people to get rich for 25 years now, this legal protection of their rights is long-overdue, in the view of Liu Junning, a political scientist in Beijing.

"For fifty years there has been no constitutional guarantee of private property rights," he told BBC News Online.

The constitution is the mother of all laws. Whatever is written into it will stand at least for the foreseeable future
Zhou Dunren, Fudan University
"No matter what the real purpose of those proposing this revision, the common people will be able to use it to defend their property from plunder by the state".

Local officials and unscrupulous but well-connected property developers often seize land and requisition private assets for little or no compensation.

The new law offers protection only to "legally held" private property, leading some to believe that it is mainly for show and that officials will be as free as ever to decide what is legal and what is not.

History

There is a history in China of constitutional rights being ignored, according to Robin Munro, Research Director of a Hong Kong-based rights group, China Labour Bulletin.

"You need specific laws to realise the rights set out in the constitution and that's where China has always been deficient," he said.

It is a good straw in the wind... and may symbolise a change of heart on human rights
Robin Munro, China Labour Bulletin
Another draft amendment to the constitution - on human rights - is even more open to interpretation, he believes.

It is the first time that the Government has committed itself in the constitution to provide "respect for and protection of human rights," and the fact that the phrase is not qualified as usual by a reference to "rights of subsistence" is seen by some activists as a hopeful sign.

"Everything will depend on the commitment of the government to take this seriously," said Mr Munro.

"But it is a good straw in the wind as to what the thinking is on human rights and may symbolise a change of heart".

The new leadership has been unusually strong in insisting that the constitution be respected in practice as well as in theory, according to Professor Zhou Dunren, a specialist in China's economic reforms at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Petitions

"The constitution is the mother of all laws. Whatever is written into it will stand at least for the foreseeable future," he said.

Despite elaborate measures to prevent protests or petitions during the current meetings in Beijing, some academics have presented letters to the NPC, calling on delegates to stand up for the rule of law.

Citizens' lawful private property brooks no violation
Draft amendment to constitution

This comes in the face of a reported backlash within some sections of the Communist Party leadership against the constitutional changes, which are seen as providing a direct challenge to the party's power.

Although disguised as calls for further legal reform, the letters are in fact directly political in nature, according to Rob Gifford, Beijing correspondent of National Public Radio (USA).

The academics are hoping that these constitutional amendments will help rein in the ruling party, he said.

"The supremacy of the Communist Party has led to officials being untouchable. By saying the law should be above everything, the reformers are hoping to make them more accountable."

After two decades of experiencing the fastest economic development is the world, many urban Chinese are now feeling the need to protect that development - and their own new properties, cars and investments - against the whims of unelected officialdom.

The latest meeting of China's rubber-stamp parliament may do little to promote the cause of democracy, but it should at least mark a small advance for the rule of law - at the expense of the previously unbridled power of the Party.


SEE ALSO:
China to protect private property
22 Dec 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Q&A: China's new leadership
18 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Wen Jiabao
05 Dec 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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