Chinese reforms yet to register at local levels

Law: The Chinese constitution guarantees both individual and property rights - on paper.

July 18, 2004|By Gady Epstein | Gady Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - In this city of continuous demolition and construction, Huang Zhenyun was just another person fighting for his family home, until China's top propaganda outlets decided to make him a hero.

People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party, and China Daily, the English-language mouthpiece of the government, praised Huang this spring for asserting his rights under the national constitution, amended this year to protect both human rights and private property.

"Huang Zhenyun not only studied the constitution articles carefully but also was courageous enough to pick up the weapon of the constitution to protect his own rights," the People's Daily wrote in a "salute" to Huang published in its weekly "Democracy and Rule of Law" section. "We can clearly feel the power of the old man. It is this power in hundreds of millions of people that push our society moving in the direction of greater democracy and civilization."

It was a striking official endorsement of the individual right to resist, and went on to tell readers that people need to "fight" to protect their rights. The article went even further, condemning the forced relocation of people such as Huang: "If a certain policy or system can't stand the test of the constitution and would force the people to take up the constitution as a weapon, that policy or system doubtlessly should be abdicated."

This sort of progressive, populist rhetoric periodically raises the hopes of average citizens that maybe the rulers in Beijing will come to their aid against corrupt local officials - the people who run day-to-day life with virtually unchecked power. The People's Daily article might have raised Huang's hopes, too, except that on the same morning it was published, his home in the heart of the capital was torn down at the order of local government officials.

"The constitution says that private property should be protected, but they knocked down my private home and trampled the constitution," Huang, 62, said in an interview. "Although the revised constitution has been made public, it has not been put into effect. Lower-level corrupt officials just don't do things according to the constitution."

China's revision of its constitution is one link in a broader evolution of rule of law in China that has been more rhetorical than real. On paper, China is building a foundation of legal theories and procedures that offer a measure of hope to lawyers, intellectuals, journalists and rights advocates that some day disputes will be decided according to rules rather than the whims of power.

To many here, that day appears hopelessly far off under this one-party dictatorship. But Huang's experience demonstrates that the mere promise of rule of law is by itself creating new expectations among a broad audience in China - expectations that could one day translate into pressure on Beijing's rulers for real reform.

The passage of this year's constitutional amendments was a classic example of how official rhetoric can drive individual expectations.

The National People's Congress, China's legislature, added protections for human and property rights to the constitution in March, announcing the changes in newspapers and over television and radio. Copies of the revised constitution, it was announced, would be available at bookstores the next day.

A best-seller

The response was incredible. In the first two months after the document went on sale, the four biggest printers of the new constitution sold a combined 2.8 million copies, according to figures provided by the publishing companies.

In Beijing, Huang lined up at a downtown bookstore to buy a copy the morning it went on sale, and began citing its revisions in his challenges of local authorities. In Kaifeng in central China's Henan province, a group of residents repeatedly played a recording of the new constitutional amendments over loudspeakers almost daily for months to protest the government's plans to demolish their homes.

In the southeastern city of Fuzhou, Lin Zhengxu used borrowed cash to buy 100 copies of the constitution to distribute to fellow villagers whose land had been seized by the government. Lin and others, inspired by the constitutional revisions, decided to take advantage of an obscure legal right for citizens to petition for the removal of a member of the legislature. One of the targets they chose was their mayor, Lian Zhixian.

In these ways, changes such as the constitutional amendments are fostering a sense of individual empowerment. More troubling for China's leaders, the promotion of rule of law in the absence of actual rule of law could foment an enduring resentment of rule by fiat.

The Henan residents, for example, have failed to win concessions from the government, despite their continual broadcasting of the constitution. Lin's Fuzhou enterprise, too, quickly proved quixotic.

Fleeing town

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