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Property Rights Law Expected to Award Those Returning What They Find

Not pocketing what one picks up is a traditional virtue of the Chinese People. But in a constantly changing society, great changes have occurred in people’s thinking. Many people now no longer feel embarrassed about asking for a reward for returning lost property. Do they have the right to do so? It’s time to regulate such social behavior through legislation, according to Professor Liang Huixing, a researcher with the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Should the Person Returning the Lost Found Be Paid

Xinhua News Agency reported last year how a Russian businessman left his laptop computer bag in a taxi in Ningbo, a city in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. In addition to a number of valuables, the bag also contained a computer program made by the bag owner. As the taxi driver had not given a receipt, the Russian businessman was unable to find him and had to offer a reward for the return of his lost property through radio and newspaper advertisements. A few days later, the driver surnamed Gui returned the lost bag to its owner and was given 8,888 yuan. But soon after, the agent of the Russian businessman in Ningbo made a complaint against the driver to the municipal administration of highway transportation, reasoning that the owner of the lost property had been forced to offer a reward only because the driver’s failure to issue a receipt had made it difficult to track him down.

Receiving the complaint, the Ningbo Municipal Administration of Highway Transportation found Gui through the Taxi Association. He was not only told to return the money, but also temporarily deprived of his taxi driver’s license.

But Gui was not willing to receive the punishment. He filed a lawsuit against the administration, claiming the reward from the passenger was his legal income, and the administration had no legal grounds on which to force him to return it. In doing so, it had overstepped its administrative power, and had also violated the law by suspending his job license.

In court, the administration argued that Gui failed to take the initiative to issue the receipt and therefore violated the provisions of the Regulations of Ningbo Concerning Passenger Transportation by Taxi. The initial judgment rejected all of Gui’s claims and upheld the decision of the administration of highway transportation.

What to do when one finds something belonging to others? What to do with the person who refuses to return what he finds to the owner? Does the person who finds the lost property have the right to ask the rightful owner for a reward? Could the owner of the lost property who offers a reward later renege on his (her) promise? Is this a moral issue or a legal one?

Jurist: Reward Is Claimable

According to Professor Liang Huixing who studies the Property Rights Law and is the chief draftsman of proposals for a new law, it is both. The Property Rights Law aims to regulate the ownership relationship of property, he says. In their draft proposals, Liang and other jurists have set out clear-cut and detailed provisions concerning the handling of lost property.

They consider that anyone who finds what has been lost by others should immediately inform its owner, or the person who lost the item, or who has the right to receive the lost item and return it to its owner. In case the owner, or the person who lost the item or who has the right to receive the lost item on behalf of the owner are all unknown, the person who finds the lost item should deposit it with a public security office or a residents’ committee or a villagers’ committee within 10 days.

Professor Liang stresses that given the possibility that relevant provisions of the proposals of the draft Property Rights Law will be enforced, a citizen, upon finding what is lost by others, should look for its owner immediately or report it to the agency concerned. It is a citizen’s obligation prescribed in law. Any act of hiding the object or failing to look for the owner or report the object is a breach of law, he said.

While stipulating the obligations of a citizen after finding lost property, the draft proposals also give the citizen the right to claim a reward, stipulating that the recipient of the lost item should pay the finder a reward between three to 20 percent of its value - the greater the value of the lost object, the smaller the rate of reward.

If the person who loses an object posts a reward for its return, Liang said, it should be regarded as that person’s firm offer that should be honored. But the person who finds the lost object has to make a choice between the posted award and the lawful right to claim a reward.

The so-called right to claim a reward means that a finder of the lost object may demand a reward from the owner of the lost object or voluntarily give up any right to receive it, said Liang. But if the finder makes a claim for reward, the owner of the lost object should pay according to relevant rules.

In the meantime, Liang and other scholars have also proposed that the lost property should belong to the finder if no one claims it after a given period of time following the publication of the Lost and Found notice.

According to Liang, Chinese courts have already dealt with similar cases. The Property Rights Law study group began to prepare the draft law in 1998 and submitted it to the legislature at the end of 1999.

But, as the law has not yet been officially adopted, opinions concerning how to regulate such behavior still vary. The lawsuit brought by the Ningbo driver against the Ningbo municipal administration of highway transportation evoked great response locally. It is generally held that the administration should not have butted into the case since the owner of the lost property had properly rewarded the finder out of his own willingness.

“It is a must to reward the person who finds your lost property and returns it. A reward is to affirm the person’s kindness and in the meantime serves as a warning or punishment to yourself,” said a Mr. Deng, who once suffered the experience of losing his handbag that was never returned.

(CIIC 02/15/2001)

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