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Constitutional Changes Cheered

The proposed constitutional amendments protecting human rights and private property have been unanimously hailed by scholars, legal experts and human-rights advocates as "unprecedented" in China.

The incorporation of the thought of "Three Represents" in the Constitution has also got the thumbs-up as a long-term guiding ideology for the nation.

The three issues top the list of draft amendments of 14 changes to the Constitution of 138 articles in four chapters proposed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) late last year after soliciting opinions from different parties. It has been five years since the last amendments.

"Great changes have taken place in China since the promulgation of the current Constitution in 1982, and the last amendments do not address all the aspects of fundamental transition covering people's social, economic and cultural life, so a revision is necessary," says Li Buyun, a professor with the Institute of Law Science under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

"By all means, the draft amendments are imbued with a strong democratic spirit," comments Mo Jihong, deputy chairman of Constitution Institute of China Law Society.

"For the first time, the draft amendments by the CPC Central Committee were released to the public in their full text, which indicates the people-centred working style of the new generation of leadership," he observes.

The proposal of adding "the State respects and safeguards human rights" to the first article of the chapter on basic rights and obligations of citizens is in itself a demonstration of the high importance attached to human rights, says Mo. While it clearly sets the rights and obligations of the State, the clause is also an expression of the interests of the citizens and their legitimate rights.

Human rights

Hu Jinguang, a professor of constitution studies at the Law School of Renmin University of China, says "the amendment is a reflection of increased awareness of human-rights protection in the country in the past two decades," since none of the three previous amendments to the Constitution touched on the issue.

It is certainly a very encouraging milestone for human rights in the country when "respecting and safeguarding of human rights" is acknowledged by the Constitution, says Zhou Jue, president of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, a non-governmental organization on human-rights research and promotion in the country. He regards it as an indication of the country's "political advancement" even as China endeavors to develop the economy and improve citizens' living standards.

"It will definitely enhance the protection of rights, because this general stipulation serves as a broad legal basis for all rights," Hu adds. Besides, it will benefit China's exchanges and cooperation on human rights with other countries.

Although some people want a more detailed interpretation of the rights-protection clause to guard against any loopholes, most experts consider the revision as an important gesture by the Chinese leadership to deepen political reform by committing the government to being more responsible to the people.

The immediate evidence of human-rights protection is the proposed revision on protection of private property, which puts private assets of citizens on an equal footing with public property, that is, they are not to be infringed upon.

Private property

The current law stipulates that the State protect citizens' legitimate income, savings, housing and their ownership of other legitimate properties. The draft amendment goes further to state that citizens' lawful private property is subject to no infringement.

A survey conducted in 2002 by the China Business Climate Monitoring Center indicated that 93 percent of China's urban dwellers wanted private-property rights protected through constitutional amendment. It is, therefore, no surprise to see the revision garnering overwhelming support from the general public, especially with the non-public economy now accounting for half of the country's national economic growth.

"The draft is more explicit and offers stronger protection to citizens' private property," says Zhang Houyi, a researcher at the Institute of Social Studies under CASS, who believes the private sector would be the top beneficiary of the revision.

Experts believe that with the new clause, which covers both personal belongings and means of production, business people and entrepreneurs will no longer have any misgivings about the protection of their properties.

"The right to own private property makes people feel safe about their assets and allows them to have a reasonable anticipation of gains and profits, which can inspire people to start their own businesses," says Wang Zhenmin, deputy president of the Law School of the prestigious Tsinghua University.

However, the clause has triggered some debate, particularly pertaining to the words "lawful" and "legitimate." Some scholars dismiss the attributive adjectives, whereas others strongly support them, arguing that property procured through illegal means by abusing power or taking advantage of loopholes in law and the system should not be protected.

The revision is also expected to check the encroachment of State power on private assets in cases of land requisition. In the past years, despite provisions in the Constitution, governments have infringed on private properties during land requisition from farmers and in forced demolition of residential houses in the urbanization drive. Researchers on the rural economy estimate that a total of 2 trillion yuan (US$240 billion) has been snatched from farmers through land requisition.

Professor Cai Dingjian from China University of Political Science and Law points out that the revised clause on private property and the State's compensation for land requisition would no doubt increase public awareness and their negotiation capability.

Scholars agree that recognition of private property and the rights to it would definitely push forward democracy and the rule of law in China as it sets limits to public power.

The clause, coupled with another revision stating the State encourages, supports and guides the development of the non-public economy while conducting supervision and management according to law, is expected to boost the growth of the private sector in the years to come.

'Three Represents'

The thought of "Three Represents," which calls for the CPC to always represent the development trend of China's advanced productive forces, the orientation of China's advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people, was set forth in 2000 by Jiang Zemin, then general-secretary of the CPC Central Committee. It was written into the Party Constitution in November of 2002 alongside the heritage of Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, as guiding principles of the CPC.

"The important thought of 'Three Represents' inherits and develops Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. Therefore it's necessary to write it into the country's Constitution as a long-term guiding ideology for the nation," says Professor Xu Chongde from Renmin University of China.

Some researchers regard it as a political commitment made to the people by the CPC, and a criterion to appraise the Party's work.

The draft amendments will be submitted by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress as a bill to the plenary session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC) next month for deliberation and approval.

Although many agree that a new Constitution integrating the will of the Party and the people will serve as a strong foundation for China's development, what is more important is the implementation.

"Even if it's approved, a great amount of work is yet to be done, such as readjusting existing laws and regulations to ensure the effective implementation of the amendment," says Cai Dingjian, who is also with the secretariat of the NPC Standing Committee.

(China Daily February 16, 2004)

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