Tuesday, March 16, 2004

property is theft, once more
While valiant Spaniards were resisting the twin jihads of terrorism and demagoguery, China’s National People’s Congress rubber stamped measures to protect property rights, in the country’s latest affirmation of market Leninism.

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.
"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.

It’s true that there’s been no constitutional guarantee of property rights in China since the Communist Party came to power. But it’s arguable whether there has ever been a constitutional guarantee of such rights in China. Over centuries of dynastic rule, the accrual of too much wealth and power by a landlord class was regarded as a threat to the authoritarian state and dealt with as such. According to figures given in Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts, only about 3% of the Chinese population counted as proprietors after the Communists won power in 1949, in the sense that they owned land that they did not directly use or farm. Ironically, Mao Zedong’s own family were one of this group.

That didn’t stop Mao purging the landlord class in 1949 and after, amid scenes of possibly oedipal savagery. In the first stage of the revolution in the countryside, land was distributed amnongst the peasants. From 1955 onwards it was collectivized. And from 1979 onwards, it was restyored to the peasantry in the “household responsibility system” that marked the first stage of market reform.

You can’t build the world’s fastest growing economy on the back of small scale peasant proprietorship. And, according to Chinese political scientist Qin Hui, further market-led economic reform has seen the state grab back from the peasantry what it granted them in the early years of the reform process.

But the great danger facing the population of the countryside is not a merger of peasant holdings, but state expropriation of peasant lands for commercial development. This is now a widespread phenomenon in China. In Jiangxi, for example, the local government recently forced peasants off some 8,000 acres, capable of supporting 20,000 people, to lease the land to a company supposedly engaged in ecologically enlightened agriculture. In practice, all the compensation the peasants received was to be excused from paying taxes—they got nothing from the deal, and when they protested, the government sent the police to quell them. Had the land been the private property of the peasants, the company would have found it very difficult to annex an area as large as this by market exchange. The scale of this abuse stirred up strong reactions, but it is not an isolated instance. Thus, many people now hold the view that the only way to protect peasants is to hand land over to them and deprive the authorities of the power to make land deals behind their backs..

It’s possible to argue that the constitutional guarantee of private property will put an end to this abuse of power. More likely, it draws a line under it, since land expropriated for private uses can now be retrospectively legalized, giving the dispossessed no rights at all. A few years back, the admission of entrepreneurs to the communist party was hailed as a liberalization of the system. More accurately, it was a signal to the powerful and well connected to go out and grab what they can. Now they have been given the additional right to keep what they have grabbed. Qin Hui is pessimistic about the consequences.

In Eastern Europe, by contrast, privatization and democratization took place more or less at the same time. When democratization occurred, publicly owned assets were still relatively intact, so that their division was accomplished through a bargaining process, which—though people grumbled about it—was perceived as relatively legitimate. No one, on the left or right, now seeks to overturn the results, even if people on the left might criticize its lack of ‘substantive’ justice.

But in China, privatization is occurring before democratization. If all our public assets are to be confiscated by oligarchs, the result will be blatantly piratical and unjust. No doubt if democracy is postponed for another two hundred years, people will have forgotten the brazen injustice being perpetrated today, and accept the results. But if democratization comes soon there will be no Mandela-style ‘political reconciliation’, but great popular anger and determination to reverse the injustice. Then the outcome could be like Russia all over again—the new Stolypins in China producing a new Bolshevik revolution, leading to a new despotism once again