Rights experts welcome plan to amend constitution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:00am

But they fear provisos on property and benefits are too vague to protect the people

Academics and human rights experts yesterday welcomed proposed changes to the constitution, while voicing reservations about whether they would bring concrete changes in the lives of ordinary people.

Chan Kin-man, sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the proposed changes were aimed at addressing the nation's most urgent domestic problems.

Cases of city dwellers being forcibly removed from their homes on land illegally sold to property developers have been well documented. In rural areas, officials profiting from the illegal sale of farmers' land had resulted in violent conflict.

China's leadership is increasingly aware that the high level of social discontent is one of the biggest threats to stability. Professor Chan said the constitutional amendments sought to address those concerns by enshrining the protection of private property, providing for compensation when land was requisitioned and enhancing the social security system.

'These are critical steps,' Professor Chan said. 'The amendments are very much related to these threats.'

For instance, the clause on land requisition originally said 'the state may in the public interest take over land for its use in accordance with the law'. A provision has been added to declare that the state must also give compensation for relocation.

But Jiang Shigong, a constitutional expert at Peking University, said he worried that the mere mention compensation would not be enough to safeguard the land rights of ordinary people. The amendment does not say how much compensation should be paid or whether it will match the market value of the land. Often, compensations to farmers is unpaid or they receive far less than the value of their land.

'[The amendments] are an improvement, but whether they will make a difference remains very much to be seen,' Professor Jiang said.

Another amendment will incorporate former president Jiang Zemin's Theory of the Three Represents as a 'guiding principle of the nation', along with the ideology of Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The theory holds that the party represents the interests of advanced culture, advanced productive forces - including private entrepreneurs - and the broad masses. While it has caused controversy in some circles with its embrace of capitalism, the theory is seen as a pragmatic measure to widen the party's support base and reflect the reality of China's transition to a market economy.

Professor Chan said the inclusion of Mr Jiang's theory and the amendment to protect private property would appease entrepreneurs concerned about protecting their assets.

Observers said other additions to the constitution, such as a clause enshrining 'the respect and protection of human rights', and improvements to the social security system, were a good sign, although little would change for the moment.

Robin Munro, research director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, said: 'It is much more important that the government reviews its entire approach to human rights and stop systematically violating [them].'