For two weeks in March, the Great Hall of the People in Beijing played host to one of the most important yearly meetings in China. Gathering from across the country, 2,987 parliamentarians, with a majority of 2,157 being members of the Communist Party, and stakeholders from nongovernmental sectors joined the fifth session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), respectively. As the two events usually take place together, they are jointly referred to as the “two sessions” or the “two assemblies.”
According to the Chinese Constitution, the NPC is the most important political body nationwide, with the power to legislate, oversee the operations of the government, and elect the major officers of the state. However, critics say that these powers are just de jure and that, in fact, the Communist Party decides on all major issues, which is why NPC has been commonly referred to as a “rubber stamp” Parliament by Western media. Unlike the NPC, the CPPCC has no legislative power. As its own name suggests, the CPPCC is a consultative body with many of its 2,000 members not members of the Communist Party. Among them are some of China’s most popular figures, like the actor Jackie Chan, the basketball player Yao Ming, or Wang Jianling, the owner of Wanda Group and also China’s richest businessman.
During the two sessions, the Communist Party announced its intention to introduce a comprehensive Civil Code, designed to improve the existing civil rules that are scattered throughout many pieces of legislation. This is part of a broader plan to reform the country’s legal system by 2020. The ambitious reform agenda was announced three years ago during the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in October 2014.
Following the inauguration of the civil code, many laws currently regulating various aspects of a civil nature, such as contract law, tort law, adoption law, marriage law, etc., will most likely be completely or partially abolished. The civil code will follow the general principles of the civil law and the principles set out in the Chinese Constitution. However, the new code is expected to shed more light on some rather obscure areas of law that need further legislation, for instance with regard to property, family relations, and personal rights, which we will discuss below.
Private property is protected under Article 13 of the 1982 Chinese Constitution, as amended in 2014. The discussion on property rights becomes sensitive when it comes to land ownership. In China, a country with a powerful socialist heritage, land can only be owned by the state or by collective organizations; private entities can only buy the right to use the land for a limited number of years. According to the existing legislation, land-use rights – “usufructuary rights” – can be granted for a maximum of 70 years, after which the law is not very clear on what will happen. Thus, individuals in China can own their houses and apartments, but they cannot own the land on which these buildings are constructed, nor can they own the natural resources underneath. The land-use rights are transferable, however, observers say that the market for land prices is monopolized by the government, even when the land is owned by a collective.
The poor enforcement of real estate property rights is mirrored by the numerous land-seizures seen during the past years, many a direct consequence of China’s urbanization process. This situation is particularly damaging for businesses, as it makes investors reluctant to engage in economic activities, knowing that the land on which they are conducting their businesses is vulnerable to government decisions, sometimes at a moment’s notice. The new private property guidelines are thus expected to strengthen the property rights regime and provide more protection for private property, by narrowing the interpretation of “public interest” as a means to prevent abusive expropriations. Likewise, a mandatory condition for all acts taken by the state in relation to private property to be publicized would highly contribute to increasing political trust in China.
The new civil code will touch upon family relations as well. However, it isn’t clear how deep the new rules will go onto the matter, since China already has in place several laws pertaining to adoption, marriage, and other aspects related to family life. Whether the Civil Code is going to replace these laws remains to be seen. More importantly, in recent years, China has become aware of major challenges approaching at a fast pace, among which the aging of its population raises the most concerns. In a United Nations Report, it was estimated that, by 2050, each retiree in China will be supported by 2.1 people in the workforce. Against a background of slowing economic growth, this prediction does not seem very optimistic.