Draft civil laws aimed at better protecting private property in order to stimulate economic growth have gone before the National People's Congress (NPC). The decision to codify civil laws laying down the rights of individuals and corporations was made at last month's party congress, where it was agreed strengthening protection would encourage private investment. NPC chairman Li Peng is determined to get the task under way before he steps down from office in March. In the Chinese constitution, state property, defined as 'sacred and inviolate', enjoys the highest and most unambiguous form of protection. In comparison, protection for private property is far less clear, said Jiang Ping, a law professor at the China Politics and Law University in Beijing. For the market economy to function smoothly, it is essential to safeguard the rights of individuals and corporations, he said. The Civil Law Code seeks to strengthen the protection of private property and offers guidelines on settling disputes. There is a heated debate among legal scholars and lawyers about whether protection of private property should take the form of a constitutional amendment. Cao Siyuan, a legal reform activist who lobbied successfully for China's bankruptcy law, said the codification of civil law could help to close legal loopholes, but better protection for private property also needed to be written into the constitution. 'Between the state and private properties, the relationship is lopsided,' he said. However, others said as long as private property was legal, it would enjoy constitutional protection. State ownership will continue to enjoy the strongest legal protection. This will ensure that land remains in state ownership, although individuals' and corporations' land-use rights will be upheld, said Jiang Shigong, a Shenzhen-based professor of law at Peking University. He said that calling state property 'sacred and inviolate' did not diminish protection of private property, since under the market economy there was no threat of it being seized by the state. China already has general civil law provisions which were drawn up in 1988, as well as separate laws covering contracts, marriage and inheritance. The civil law code is in part intended to cover the gaps neglected by these provisions. With the deepening of reforms, especially following China's entry into the World Trade Organisation, greater legal protection is needed in areas including privacy, the environment, intellectual property rights and medical malpractice. The draft of the civil law code contains nine chapters and 1,209 articles. It will be voted on by the full session of the NPC in March. Since many parts of the draft code stand independent of each other, the NPC is likely to take up and approve the code segment by segment. Legal experts said the whole process could take up to four years.