After 13 years’ struggle and following a hard labour, the PRC’s Property Law was eventual delivered, and was doubtless an important historic event. Assessing the significance of this event, however, I found some exaggeration on the part of both the Left and Right.
The Right applauded the Property Law as formally announcing the end of over half a century of the Party’s dream of communism; it was to sow a seed that would usher in an era of copious private wealth in China. The Left meanwhile issued dire warnings that the Property Law would legalize as private property massive amounts of state-owned assets that had been confiscated for over 20 years. It would therefore plant a land-mine on the road ahead, sooner or later triggering an explosion.
In fact, the last iota of communist idealism had ceased to exist among the veterans of the CPC long before the Property Law was in the pipeline, and their offspring, amassing wealth with a greed bordering on insanity, had no objection to it and indeed secretly supported it. This had been a major factor leading to the conflict of June 4, 1989. The introduction of the Property Law does not indicate any transcendent change of attitude to private property on the part of the Communist Party rulers. To the contrary, it is simply a measure forced on the Party as it moves to consolidate its own interests.
The crux of the problem is that Hu Jintao, far from making protection of private property the most basic economic and social pillar of the legitimacy of power in China, still believes that state-owned property is the main pillar of the regime. This is because those in power don’t think that Party will not continue to be above the law just because private property rights are assumed to be protected by the Constitution and the rule of law. The most reliable way to maintain the Party’s position is for it to directly manage its own massive finances and control all state machinery.
It was this mindset that made Hu Jintao so frightened by Gong Xiantian’s written proposal. What Gong was driving at was that state-owned assets would not be secure if the Property Law were passed. So its delivery was postponed for a year. Why then did Hu Jintao later decide to “ensure passage of the Property Law” by any means? He found the actual program of the Left to be unacceptable, because their logic was that to ensure the security of state assets, the “new rich” would have to be audited to see how much of their wealth arose from the erosion of “state-owned assets.” Hu Jintao eventually understood that even his own children belonged to the list that would have to be scrutinized.
The Property Law therefore finally appeared, the essence of which can be summed up in two sentences. First, to ensure the regime’s stability, “state-owned assets will continue to grow,”, and second, to ensure the enthusiasm of the officials, “the road of privatizing public assets will not be not blocked.” It’s not hard to see that the Property Law is nothing new in conceptual terms, but centers on the officials, rather than the people, inheriting China’s authoritarian traditions with regard to property.
So will the Property Law be, as the Right said, the seed of the proliferation of private wealth? To look at recent displays of arrogance by the controllers the PRC’s state-owned assets, it’s easy to see that what the rulers are truly concerned about is their expansion. According to media reports, the government intends to invest 250 billion U.S. dollars to set up an overseas investment company, and at the same time SASAC is using its huge monopoly profits to expand emerging industrial fields. Under the huge pressure of the state-owned economy, how much room for growth will there be for private capital?
And what of the risk the Left spoke of a land mine exploding? Hopefully it won’t be a case of an “unhappily accurate prophecy.” Can China avoid another revolution to distribute wealth? The answer is not in the text of the Property Law, but in the minds of the Chinese people. We see that people’s ideas advance faster than those of the power elite.
The significance of the recent “most in-your-face holdout household” in Chongqing was that more and more people have abandoned the idea of “all land under Heaven belonging to the monarch”, and have accepted the philosophy of the old British lady that “my broken roof may admit the wind, but it may not admit the King”.
China’s rulers are not prepared to accept this however, and I am afraid that this disparity is where the real danger lies.