Property-grab rules must be given bite
The mainland's cities would probably not have modernised so quickly were it not for the ability of the state to seize land. But such grabs of land for government infrastructure and private development are also the biggest cause of social unrest - and one reason why President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are so worried about instability. Draft rules approved by the State Council last week that promise fairer treatment to people in urban areas facing eviction are aimed at taking the fire out of protests. But as long as enforcement remains patchy and corruption rampant, they will have little effect.
Authorities are rightly concerned about the protests and violence that unsurprisingly accompany illegal property grabs by developers and local governments. A number of high-profile killings by police and hired thugs - and suicides - have caused public outrage and anger. Intimidation to force residents from homes and businesses out of premises is rampant. This deepens mistrust in officials.
A law protecting private property was enacted in 2007, but it does not apply to land, which cannot be privately owned. In any case, that seems to be of little consequence where the thirst for development in a booming economy is concerned. Officials intent on growth, local governments dependent on land sales for revenue and developers hungry for profits are only too willing to ignore rights and protections. So, too, are officials in charge of showpiece projects like last year's World Expo in Shanghai. The complaints of forced removal for inadequate compensation to far-off new housing were loud and bitter. Lawmakers intend the new rules, which guarantee compensation at market value and an end to forced demolitions without legal approval, to prevent repeats.
Such requirements are important - but only if they are enforced. In a country where legal rules and practices cannot be counted on, it is unclear how much impact they will have. And it is even more baffling why rural areas were not included, given that land grabs are an even bigger problem in the countryside. If such rules are to have meaning, they have to apply to all people.