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Fri, Mar 15, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Chinese tycoons push for land rights


A founder of China's first private bank is lobbying the government to give citizens the right to own property, heralding the biggest ideological shakeup since Deng Xiaoping ushered in a market economy in 1978.

Wang Xiang, who helped found Minsheng Banking Group in 1996 with pig-feed tycoon Liu Yonghao and other businessmen, said he's circulating a petition to put the issue on the agenda at next year's National People's Congress. Wang, an adviser to the mostly rubber-stamp legislature that met in Beijing this month, needs support from two-thirds of the 2,979 lawmakers.

The 50-year-old construction executive is in the vanguard of a push to acknowledge the growing clout of private industry in a communist nation founded half a century ago on the primacy of the state. Bolstering individual rights would complicate state-mandated land seizures such as the relocation of 1.1 million people to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.

"We need an iron-clad guarantee that property rights will not be trampled upon," said Wang, who was exiled to communal farms in the early 1970s because he came from a family of landowners, reviled as "enemies of the masses" during the Cultural Revolution. "That is why we must amend the constitution."

Deng's reforms, begun in the late 1970s, were codified in a 1984 speech in which he embraced the then-novel notion of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" to transform the Soviet-style command economy. Prices of goods and services were relaxed, unprofitable factories were scuttled, the stock market was reopened. Last December, China joined the WTO, pledging to lower tariffs.

When Deng spoke, private businesses contributed 1 percent of gross domestic product. Now, their share is estimated at 43 percent and private businesses range from curb-side stalls to multibillion-yuan companies.

One in six of China's listed companies was founded by entrepreneurs, said Sean Hu, who manages the US$37 million China Heartland Fund in Shanghai. The constitutional amendment ``would strengthen and help nurture family-owned businesses,'' he said.

More than 30 million registered private companies, about half of them concentrated in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces, have combined capital of 1.3 trillion yuan (US$157 billion) and employ 24 million workers, according to government statistics.

In what seems to businessmen such as Wang and Liu like an anachronism, however, state ownership of property is enshrined in China's constitution as "inviolable" and "sacrosanct."

Though farmers have been allowed to lease land since 1979 (urban residents got the same right in 1998) and companies such as Shanghai Lujiazui Finance & Trade Zone Development Co have "traded" property for years, in reality the government still has unchallenged power to acquire land for public works.

"A man gets the impetus to work harder when he knows the value he created and the property he legally acquired won't be confiscated," said Liu, chairman of Hope Group, China's biggest animal-feed maker, who's regularly described as the nation's wealthiest man.

"Whether China can continue growing and generate wealth depends on the extent the constitution can acknowledge the individual's right to own property."

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