Marx on the Ash Heap in China

One of the first acts by China's Communists after they took power in 1949 was to seize all private property (and kill landlords). It was the main reason for the Chinese Revolution.

But in spring 2004, the party plans to allow Chinese to own land and to welcome wealthy entrepreneurs as party members.

Officials revealed the language Monday for a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee private property rights. The move comes 25 years to the month after China began its long march toward a market economy (see opinion). The wording simply states that "private property obtained legally shall not be violated," and that it is "on an equal footing with public property." A compliant legislature is expected to approve the measure in March.

But those words were a difficult step for a party whose authority has long rested on the theory of Karl Marx that the state must eliminate all private means for creating wealth - especially land - in building an egalitarian society. The party actually made the decision in secret last October, after years of complaints from private businesses seeking more protection for their investments. It marks a victory for the new party chief, Hu Jintao, who took over last March and had to fight off opponents who wanted the party to clearly remain as "the vanguard of the working class."

The party has slowly realized that the creation of new wealth relies more on those who risk money on property and ideas ("capitalists") than on labor. And its own survival now relies on keeping the economy humming at its rapid rate, and providing more legal protections for the wealth-creators, including farmers.

Many farmers still remain at the mercy of local officials who often seize their land. City homeowners, too, sometimes face eviction without legal due process. Businesses need land ownership as collateral for loans. And many Chinese investors send their money overseas because they don't trust the limited legal protections. Such capital flight, by one estimate, is $50 billion a year.

Property rights are the basis for any democratic society because they give people a long-term stake in how their government works. The party's move could reenergize China's dormant democracy movement and perhaps reduce a popular perception that market reforms have mainly benefited party and government officials.

Too much of China's commercial activity remains vulnerable to the whims of leaders rather than being protected by the certainty of laws. As the party finally leaves Marx on history's ash heap, it will need to leave behind many of its old ways, too.

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