NPC decision paves way for law on private property amid row over selling out to capitalism It's no secret that while clinging to the veneer of socialism, the mainland is at heart a capitalist country. A layer of the veneer is set to be stripped away with the National People's Congress Standing Committee's move last week to endorse a proposed law on property rights. The move paves the way for the draft to be put to the NPC for a vote at its March session and, if passed, will finally spell out the rights mainlanders have to private property. It took a record six readings to get past the Standing Committee and some opponents still insist support should be withdrawn, saying it is 'anti-socialist' and therefore violates the constitution. Yet supporters say the issue of private ownership has been ignored for too long and legislation is needed to protect both public and private property in an emerging market economy. Work on the draft legislation started in 1999 when the NPC's legal work committee asked leading mainland civil law experts to come up with a proposal, igniting debate about how to assess the reforms carried out since the late 1970s. At the time there was a flood of property rights disputes related to private firms with administrative links to state-owned enterprises, making a clear distinction on who owned what imperative. The Communist Party also set the tone for property law in 1999 when it made clear various forms of ownership should be protected. The process of drafting the property law rolled on as planned and the differences that emerged were mainly over technical legislative problems until August last year, when a Peking University law professor wrote an open letter. In the letter, Gong Xiantian lashed out at the draft, describing it as 'deviating from socialism', 'catering to capitalism' and 'anti-constitutional' by allowing private ownership to supercede and undermine public ownership. He said the draft would give a green light to those wanting to legitimise the privatisation of state-owned assets in order to protect their illegal gains. He received an immediate reaction, rallying supporters and opponents of private property rights. Amid relatively high unemployment, a widening wealth gap and rampant privatisation of state-owned assets by executives, Professor Gong found many supporters. The argument has since shifted to the question of whether it is right for nominally communist China to pursue economic reform, and whether privatising state-owned assets had led it towards capitalism. Early this year, Zhou Ruijin , the former deputy editor-in-chief of the People's Daily, published an article headlined 'Reforms Should Not Waver'. In it, he said: 'They [the conservatives] escalated the new problems and conflicts during the reform process, attributing them as being the evil consequence of upholding western neoliberalism, and criticising and denying [the reforms]. It seems we are facing another round of debate over whether the reform is socialist or capitalist.' The calls for the draft to be passed were strong and grounded in a burgeoning crisis over property rights. Disputes over land ownership, acquisition and compensation, demolition and relocation, and the ownership rights of urban apartment buyers have soared in recent years. Renmin University law professor Yang Lixin , who helped write the bill, said: 'They [the critics] don't have knowledge of civil law. They just have leftist ideological thought. They're trying to bring the ideology from Soviet Russia.' Another participant, Peking University professor Yin Tian , said: 'Property law belongs to private law, and its function is to protect individuals' rights from being violated by public power. Protection of individual rights does not mean privatisation or not protecting state interests.' He said the management of state-owned assets should be the job of the government. The passage of the draft, he said, was delayed partly due to Professor Gong's open letter and the resulting fallout, but the Standing Committee did not waver at any time on the basic principle of protecting private ownership in law. He said the latest version of the draft had not undergone any major changes, but some suggestions were taken on board, including a clause on preventing the illegal seizure of state-owned assets. But some still see it as a compromise. 'We can only take a small step ahead,' Professor Yin said.