National legislators Monday began deliberating a proposed amendment to China's Constitution, which includes the historic stipulation of protecting private property and preserving human rights.
Wang Zhaoguo, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), briefed lawmakers on the draft changes to the 1982 Constitution, which will be put to a vote at the end of NPC's 10-day session on March 14.
The changes are proposed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China last October and adopted by the NPC Standing Committee in December.
The proposal, the fourth since 1988, was drawn up by giving full play to democracy. It solicited opinions extensively, according to Wang.
The amendment was made in light of the need of reforms and the opening up of the socialist modernization drive. All the issues it covers are major ones that concern national development and involved long-term peace and order in the country, he said.
Xu Xianming, president of the China University of Political Science and Law, said the draft amendment has incorporated opinions of non-communist parties, the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, as well as theorists, legal experts, and economists.
Xu, who has participated in the draft amendment discussion on many occasions, said the most substantial change to the current Constitution is the inclusion of "protecting human rights."
"The State respects and protects human rights," one of the 14 major changes to the existing Constitution states.
"It's a consistent principle adopted by the Party and the State to respect and protect human rights. To write this principle into the Constitution will further provide a legal guarantee for its implementation," said Wang Zhaoguo in explaining the draft amendment to the nation's lawmakers Monday.
The inclusion of human rights protection in the Constitution is also "conducive to the development of China's socialist human rights undertakings, as well as exchanges and co-operation with the international community in the human rights field," Wang said.
In fact, the 15th and 16th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party of China, convened in 1997 and 2002 respectively, have explicitly stated the Party's commitment to respecting and safeguarding human rights, he said.
"This is a reflection of the increased awareness of human rights protection among the public in the past two decades," said Hu Jinguang, a constitutional professor with the Law School of Renmin University of China.
Human rights in amendment significant
The expected amendment of the Constitution declaring China's new determination to promote human rights will greatly impact the nation's governing philosophy in this most populous country on Earth, according to experts on human rights.
"When the principle of human rights promotion is enshrined in the Constitution, it becomes an obligation for government, Party and judicial departments to respect and protect human rights," said Dong Yunhu, vice-president and secretary-general of the China Society for Human Rights Studies.
Expecting the amendment to spur government officials to make human rights protection their "ultimate goal,"
Xu Xianming, president of the China University of Political Science and Law, defines the aims of the legislature, law-enforcement and judiciary as expressing, carrying out and providing remedies to people's rights.
"The amendment will bring about changes to the State's values," said Xu, who is a deputy to the 10th National People's Congress.
The draft amendment to the Constitution adds a clause stipulating that the State respects and protects human rights. The current Constitution, which took effect in December 1982, clarifies the basic rights of Chinese citizens without mentioning the phrase "human rights."
Premier Wen Jiabao, in a February speech addressing senior officials across the country, stressed that the officials should respect and protect the political, economic and cultural rights of citizens.
"The draft amendment clarifies that China accepts the moral standards of human rights," said Xu. "(Under the principle,) the public power that respects and guarantees human rights will be supported, while the disdaining and trampling on human rights should be corrected."
Founded shortly after the start of the Cold War, the People's Republic of China (PRC) used to take sides with Socialist countries which used to label the term "human rights" as bourgeois.
"As China opens more and more to the outside world,Chinese are increasingly aware of the term human rights and regard it as an important outcome of development inhuman civilization," said Dong, adding that including the principle of human rights protections into the Constitution is the natural result of China's development.
Gui Xiaofeng, a member of 10th National Committee of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top advisory body, noted that while during the early years after the PRC's founding, major efforts were placed on basic aspects such as people's livelihood, including food, clothing and ownership of means of production, now the need to respect the rights of human development has become increasingly important.
"(If passed), the amendment that includes human rights protections will provide a solid legal basis for broader space of human development," said Gui, hailing the amendment as a significant progress in the history of the protection of human rights in China.
The differences in the understanding of human rights have led to discords between China and some Western countries as how to evaluate China's human rights conditions.
The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2003 issued by the US State Department last month again blasted China's human rights conditions.
Dong, highlighting the progress made in China's human rights conditions in recent years as the "mainstream," admitted that this large developing country in the world still has its human rights problems. He cited as examples the unemployment, the lack of protection on farmers' rights, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and abuses of power.
"The Chinese Government is not turning a blind eye to them," said Dong. "They are exploring every means, including better mechanism, laws and stronger material support, to resolve them."
While some observers caution that a principle enshrined in the Constitution is not enough, both Xu and Dong stressed the importance of its application in judicial practices and relevant law-making to ensure it can be turned into deeds.
Xu said that the amendment is significant in that it sets down a principle for judicial department to act in favour of human rights in cases in which laws have not clearly defined the rules.
"China's legislative efforts will better reflect the idea of respecting and protecting human rights," said Dong. "Laws and regulations must reflect this spirit. Ideas have to be turned into laws and regulations to get implemented."
Embracing the idea of human rights protections, China's law-makers have made significant amendments to the country's Criminal Procedure Law and Criminal Law in 1996 and 1997.
Other laws that have contributed to better human rights protections include the State Compensation Law, the General Principles of Civil Law and the laws on the protection of women, minors and senior citizens.
"Over the years, China has formed an initial legal system of human rights protection based on the Constitution and covers every aspect of life," said Dong.
Draft amendment consecrates private property
Wu Jianzhong, a lawyer with the Beijing Dacheng Law Firm, may soon have a new reason to raise his voice next time when he speaks for residents facing forcible relocation from their homes or land in the Chinese capital.
Wu's new enthusiasm is derived from the historic stipulation in the proposed Chinese constitutional amendment that "private property obtained legally shall not be violated."
He heard about the possibility on a television newscast Monday afternoon.
"Now that protection of private property is possibly going to be included in the Constitution -- the basic norm of conduct for all, real estate developers, as well as some government officials will have to change... their sometimes indifferent attitudes towards private belongings will be different," Wu said.
In recent years, forcible relocations of urban and rural dwellers to make room for office buildings and other projects have resulted in growing disputes between residents and developers, and Wu has been working to help his clients get a fair shake at compensation.
Wu is not the only one to cheer at the potential amendment, which is being discussed by nearly 3,000 national legislators at the Second Session of the 10th National People's Congress.
Wang Zhenmin, a law professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University said the draft amendment, if passed, will put private property on the same footing with public assets, will better safeguard lawful private property rights of Chinese citizens from public infringement.
Li Linkai, an NPC deputy from South China's Guangdong Province, said the proposed Constitution amendment will offer a more complete institutional guarantee on the protection of means of production and therefore stimulate private investment.
Li said the action will greatly reduce worries of private entrepreneurs and give them more confidence in the investment environment.
Deputy Zhu Qinglong, an entrepreneur from Anhui Province, said the draft is a "comforting pill" and pledged to increase investment in his high-tech business of auto-control system manufacturing.
Constitutional protections on legally accumulated wealth will greatly accelerate the development of non-State-owned economy, especially private businesses, said Li Wencheng, an NPC deputy from Henan Province.
While hailing the proposed amendment's proclamation that the country must compensate those whose property is expropriated,some NPC deputies said it must be made more explicit that such compensation should be fair and rational.
Deputy Chen Yaodong from East China's Zhejiang Province Monday said some government staff have used "expropriation for public interests'' as an excuse. They often fail to compensate the private property owners in a fair and acceptable way.
"If the constitutional amendment could make it clear that such a compensation should be made fairly, maybe a lot of corruption cases could be averted," he said.