The NPC is considering a proposal from the Industrial & Commercial Association (ICA) to give private property the same legal protection as state property. This is the third time the ICA, which represents private business, has presented the proposal to the National People's Congress (NPC). The previous two times were 1997 and 2000. 'If all goes smoothly, the fastest that this amendment [to Article 12 of the constitution] could be implemented would be 2004,' said ICA vice-chairman Bao Yujun. 'It first must be proposed by the central committee of the Communist Party and then approved by the standing committee of the NPC and 20 per cent of its members. The final stage is approval by at least two thirds of the full membership of the NPC,' Mr Bao told the Guangzhou-based 21st Century Business Herald. According to ICA figures, the private sector employs 54 million people and accounts for 43 per cent of the economy, with the number of private companies having increased more than 19-fold since 1990. In parts of China, it already accounts for more than half the economy. According to official media, private companies in Zhejiang province last year accounted for 70 per cent of tax revenue, while the number of private firms in Shanghai at the end of last year reached 176,000, employing 1.98 million people and outnumbering the city's state and collective companies combined. Supporters say not giving private companies the same legal protection as the state sector drives private capital offshore and discourages investment. An editorial in the latest issue of Caijing, China's top financial magazine, gives strong support to the amendment. 'In China the legal protection afforded to the private sector is far from adequate. A third of the economy is private and it is one of the main engines of growth. Recognising its status is vital for developing our economy and to deal with the prejudice against the private sector,' it said. But this view does not represent that of a majority of delegates in the NPC, of whom more than 80 per cent are Communist Party members and deeply suspicious of rich entrepreneurs.