World and Nation

China Moves to Protect Private Property Rights Amid Discord

After more than a quarter-century of market-oriented economic policies and record-setting growth, China on Friday is expected to approve its first law to protect private property explicitly.

The measure, which was delayed a year ago amid vocal opposition from resurgent socialist intellectuals and old-line, left-leaning members of the ruling Communist Party, is viewed by its supporters as building a new and more secure legal foundation for private entrepreneurs and the country's urban middle-class home and car owners.

But delays in pushing it through the Communist Party's generally pliant legislative arm, called the National People's Congress, and a ban on news media discussion of the draft law, raise questions about the underlying intentions and the governing style of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, experts say.

Despite a high level of interest in the law among intellectuals and businessmen and the unexpected decision last year to withdraw the measure from the legislative agenda at the last minute, neither leader has spoken about the matter publicly. Wen's two-hour address to the nation on the opening day of the annual two-week legislative session last week did not mention property rights.

The measure could not pass the legislature, which acts under the party's authority, without the active support of the top leadership. Yet the conspicuous silence of Hu and Wen appears to be a form of tribute to the lingering influence of current and former officials and leading scholars who argue that China's economic policies have fueled corruption and enriched the elite at the expense of the poor and the environment.

"My own view is that the leftist voices that have emerged are not going to disappear because we have a property law," said Zhu Xueqin, a Shanghai-based historian and government expert who supports the law. "On the contrary, they are stronger now than they have been in some time."

The leadership did not so much overcome opposition to the property law as forbid it. Unlike in 2005, when leaders invited broad discussion about property rights, the latest drafts of the law were not widely circulated. Several left-leaning scholars, who favor preserving some elements of China's eroded socialist system, said they had come under pressure from their universities to stay silent.