Property and Law: The Best Hope for China

(Editor’s Note: The Mackinac Center is pleased to publish this commentary, written for us exclusively by the renowned Chinese intellectual Junning Liu. On March 16, 2007, the Chinese legislature voted to protect private property in what observers worldwide regarded as an important milestone on the country’s path away from socialism.)

The great French classical liberal Frederic Bastiat once said: "Life, liberty and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place."

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

That is absolutely the case here in China.

For decades, the ruling Chinese Communist Party refused to make laws to protect private property. But recently, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, passed a milestone property law by a wide margin. This law, which has been kicking around for 14 years, is supposed to offer the same protections for private and public property for the first time since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.

Most of the Chinese legislators are Communist Party members. According to Marxist orthodoxy, all of them have been required to accept the abolition of private property as their ultimate mission. And all members must swear that they would do everything for the party, including giving up their life, if necessary. But now, they have put their oath aside and lowered their heads in tribute to the wisdom of private property. It is so unusual to have a property law passed by the world’s most powerful Communist party. What an irony!

It seems to me, the property law indicates the noble but late-coming triumph of private property in China. In fact, it silently declared the fiasco of Communism. Those Communists came to realize in the end that, no matter how hard they try, they cannot at all change the simple fact of human nature: People like to own stuff. Socialized economies are doomed to fail because, as my friend Lawrence Reed from the Mackinac Center told a large audience at People’s University in Beijing in 2004 in his famous "Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy" speech, "What belongs to you, you tend to take care of; what belongs to no one or everyone tends to fall into disrepair." In fact, those Communists themselves are also very much property-driven. Otherwise, why do they take away people’s private property in the name of nationalization? They recognize nothing private, but they prey upon everything private!

Why is private property so fundamental in human life and for the Chinese people? The answer is: Private property is the foundation of civilization; the central institution of a free society, and it has contributed more to the growth of civilization than any other institution established by the human race. Liberty requires property. True liberty cannot exist apart from the full rights of property. No human rights without rights to property! The right of property is the most important individual right, together with other personal liberties. The bulwark of freedom is the institution of private property. As F. A. Hayek said, the system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.

China’s history shows that tyranny prevails where property is systematically denied, and where there is no rule of law and justice to protect it. No property, no justice. John Locke was right: Government has no other end than the preservation of property and protection of citizens in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property. Private property requires the establishment of the rule of law. Therefore, the real challenge for China’s leadership will be to institute a rule of law that protects property and freedom against the state. What the people want should rule rather than what the Party wants.

Eventually, it seems to me, China must change its regime from one that enshrines the Chinese Communist Party to one that safeguards property and freedom. I strongly believe China’s future depends on well-protected private-property rights and the rule of law. That is the best hope for Chinese people.


Junning Liu is founder of the Cathay Institute for Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. in political science at Beijing University and is the author and editor of several works, including "Republic, Democracy, and Constitutionalism: Studies of Liberal Thought," and "Peking University and the Liberal Tradition in Modern China." He lives now in Beijing.