China is moving to create a society of "capitalists", that is private entrepreneurs, as it moves to enshrine the right to private property.
Authorities say the addition of the clause "the state will respect and protect citizens' legally-obtained private property" to the Constitution will inject more "entrepreneur spirit" into the socialist country.
From Monday, about 3,000 deputies to the second session of 10th National People's Congress (NPC) are discussing in Beijing whether or not to specify the inviolability of private property in the world's most populous nation.
Observers say the amendments to the Constitution will easily pass with sweeping approval after the amendment draft was formally submitted Monday to the session for deliberation before the top legislators end their annual congress Sunday.
However, "private property" seems only a vague concept for China's numerous poor or low-income people, who account for the majority of the 1.3 billion population.
"The amendment to the Constitution is good," said 43-year-old Liu Ruilian, who runs a news-stand for a living in the Xidan Shopping Zone, west of the Great Hall of the People, where top legislators are meeting.
"But what is private property? Are these worthless newspapers private property?" asked Liu, who worked for a state-owned enterprise before she was laid off.
"The government said my factory was owned by all the people, but I can't take a cent freely from it," said Liu's husband Wang Shuangquan, a state-owned enterprise worker.
In fact, the influence of China's traditional concept of property, which covered only the ownership of land for thousands of years, still lingers.
"All the land beneath heaven belongs to the king," said the Book of Songs, collected and edited by China's most influential philosopher Confucius about 3,000 years ago.
Up to 100 years ago, Chinese emperors could still expropriate anyone's property any time by just simply issuing an edict, in an era when landlords held political power, not capitalists.
However, the landlord class was eliminated during the land reform of the 1950s after the Communist Party took over. "Private property" remained a politically sensitive term at the dawn of China's famous Reform and Opening-up drive beginning late 1978.
Liu Ruilian, the newspaper vendor, recalled that she lived in a house allocated by the state in 1980 when she got her first job at a state-owned enterprise to replace her retired mother. Liu's wages were awarded according to the uniform criteria set by the state.
"We had no concept of private properties since it was against Communism then," she said.
But a growing number of private entrepreneurs began to emerge as China accelerated its reform and opening-up drive. The richest, especially those listed in the annual Forbes rankings of Chinese billionaires, complained to the media, saying they had not earned as much as the magazine said.
"Lack of confidence in the government's willingness to protect private property, especially capital goods, is the major reason for their reluctance to be exposed on the billionaires' ranking," said Yang Qijing, a scholar at economics at the Beijing-based People's University. Yang once conducted a survey on the wealth ranking among more than 100 private entrepreneurs in China.
"Some began to buy large areas of real estate since the value of housing conforms to the Chinese tradition," Yang said.
Other economists say the lack of protection of private property often puts many private enterprises in a situation where they have no idea which resources belong to them and which they can control and arrange at will, thus preventing such enterprises from pursuing creativity or expanding their business as in a Western society.
A survey by the State Statistics Bureau shows private economies mainly focus on the services industry while the proportion of banking, medical services, telecommunications and media is usually kept below 20 percent.
"To give private property constitutional protection is just the first step, given the low proportion of private economies in such fields," Yang said. "The Chinese government should include more clauses to protect private property in other laws."
Yang said in order for the amendment to be effective, China still had to keep tens of thousands of officials to govern in accordance with the law as stories on local officials' violation of individuals' properties were reported repeatedly.
However, analysts say the widening gap between rich and poor in China remains another major challenge for the Chinese government after the constitutional amendments as poor people like Liu Ruilian and Wang Shuangquan still feel uncomfortable towards the protection of private property though they might know the Constitution protects the whole people.
"It is not right to think protecting private property is just safeguarding the wealth of the rich," said Bao Yujun, director of China Private Economies Association.
"We have to tell the public, to protect private property is to protect the right and freedom of all people to create wealth and to allocate their assets as they like," he said.
(Xinhua News Agency March 10, 2004)