ONE OF THE nicest spots in Guangzhou is a leafy neighbourhood oasis in the city's northeast. While most of Guangzhou's car-clogged roads are laid out at regimented right angles to each other, this neighbourhood's quiet, tree-lined streets and lovers' lanes loop and twist under a canopy of foliage. Off them are row after row of villas, many with spacious gardens. Some of the villas date to the early 1950s, when it was not yet clear that Chairman Mao would vilify 'capitalists' of every stripe and commit the country to one lunatic economic experiment after another. Guangzhou officials reckoned swell homes might entice back wealthy overseas Chinese to invest in their motherland. Hence the neighbourhood's name - Overseas Chinese New Village . The establishment of Overseas Chinese New Village may very well have been the first instance in the history of the People's Republic of China that the Communist Party toyed with the idea of being nice to rich businessmen. It was not to be the last. Similar intentions were apparently on the minds of senior party cadres over the weekend, during the third plenum of the 16th Party Congress. According to mainland media, the plenum reiterated that 'non-state firms will enjoy the same treatment as other enterprises in fund-raising, investment, land use, tax and foreign trade'. The plenum also apparently approved a constitutional amendment that would enshrine former president Jiang Zemin's 'Three Represents' theory - a convoluted bit of ideological sophistry designed to legitimise the contributions of capitalists (aka 'advanced productive forces') in a still nominally communist country. All well and good. But how to reconcile such assurances with the fear and loathing that accompanies each new list of China's richest businessmen and women? As if to test the depths of the party's professed affection for private enterprise, Euromoney's ranking of China's entrepreneurs was leaked to the international media just as the plenum was closing and is to be formally released today. Like Fortune's list of the mainland's richest people, which is also being prepared for publication soon, many highly successful executives actively sought to avoid being included on it - for the simple reason that those who appear on such lists in China have a habit of ending up in exile, in prison or dead. In countries that lack independent judiciaries, relationships offer the best protection against prosecution. The problem in China is that private entrepreneurs by definition hail from outside the two most important spheres where such relationships are forged - government and the state sector. Private businessmen can always use their money to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be. But as illustrated by the recent arrest of Shanghai property tycoon Chau Ching-ngai - who was supremely well connected - such relationships are rarely deep-rooted. It is sometimes hard not to feel sorry for China's fallen tycoons, as they operate in a country where great wealth is often - and unfairly - regarded as prima facie evidence of great misdeeds. Yet the consequences of this culture of discrimination and fear affect far more than the mainland's nouveaux riches. Take the villas in Guangzhou's Overseas Chinese New Village. An anti-rightist campaign or two was enough to convince most of the city's rich returnees that they had made a grave tactical error, and their abandoned villas ended up - predictably - in the hands of officials and state enterprises. In recent years many of the properties have been opened up for rental. And while the villas look lovely from the outside, many tenants have found them to be rundown and riddled with faulty wiring and poor plumbing. If the Communist Party is not careful, the brave new economy it is attempting to forge will be similarly flawed.