Last week, China’s National People’s Congress passed a law to protect private property rights. This action would have been unexceptionable if it had come from any other Parliament. But coming as it did from a body whose members are overwhelmingly members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), it is a matter worthy of some comment.
After all, after the CPC came to power in 1949, it not only expropriated the property of the rich but also brought all private property under the control of the State. The new Chinese law does not quite disavow the principle that all land belongs to the State, but it does confer significant protection for private home and business owners and farmers with long-term land leases. This was needed by the entrepreneurs who now account for more than half of China’s production, urban families seeking their own apartments and farmers under pressure from land developers. Clearly “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the term traditionally used by Chinese leaders to deflect attention from their path-breaking reforms, is now giving way to an openly celebrated free market economy.
The Act that places public and private property at the same level has come under fire from conservatives who say that it violates the Chinese Constitution, which says that “socialist public property is inviolable”. But this will be of little concern to the party whose presiding deity — Deng Xiaoping — once coined the slogan “to get rich is glorious”. Given the centrality that the public ownership of assets has had in Marxist-Leninist systems in the past half century and more, the decision to pass a law upholding private property rights goes beyond the issue of reform. It is a philosophical challenge to the ideology of the system. But then Deng, the man who did so much to unleash the economic potential of the Chinese people, also understood their famously pragmatic nature which he summed up in his aphorism, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”