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China's Proposed Constitutional Changes Could Guarantee Right to Own Property

China's Communist Party this week proposed changes to the Constitution that will guarantee the right to own property. The changes, the first of their kind since the 1949 Communist takeover, are seen as an effort by the party to cope with sweeping market changes while at the same time retaining its 53-year-old monopoly on power.

Signs of China's progress as an emerging economic power are on virtually every major intersection in the Chinese capital, with new buildings going up, it seems, every week.

As construction workers put the finishing touches on a gleaming apartment building, a group of elderly people silently protests in front of a nearby Beijing government building. The Communists took ownership of their homes decades ago. The government has recently deeded their property back to them, only to order the residents to vacate so a developer can demolish the homes and build a new high-rise on the spot.

The ruling Communist Party is considering constitutional amendments to protect property rights, including a requirement that people be compensated if their property is nationalized.

One of the demonstrators, a woman in her 70's who declined to give her name, says she the changes are a good thing. But she says she has no faith that government will ever act in her interest and she questions whether the amendments will help her.

She says the government does not care about poor people anymore. She says the compensation she is getting is limited and not enough to pay for a new apartment in the same area of her old home.

Analysts say Communist Party hopes the proposed amendments enhance its legitimacy at a time when China resembles more a free market society and less a Communist state.

The changes enshrine the Three Represents theory put forth by former President Jiang Zemin, who left office this year. The theory repositioned the party as one that is supported not only by the proletariat and peasants, but also by entrepreneurs and professionals.

Politics professor Joseph Cheng at the City University of Hong Kong says the constitutional changes are more in line with the country's new market economy.

"Chinese leaders now realize that probably the private sector is the most important growth point for the Chinese economy in the coming years," he said.

The changes to the constitution have been under discussion by party leaders for some time and are not regarded as controversial.

Still, some analysts see the guaranteed right to own property as a step that may one day lead to greater freedoms, and possibly even democratic reforms.

For now, no political reforms are on the horizon. Professor Cheng says President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, in office since March, will concentrate on consolidating their mandate.

"They probably do not yet have the political will to engage in political reform," added Prof. Cheng. "What we see here is very much the policies defined by the older generation of leaders."

Many political analysts say that guaranteeing property rights is a step toward promoting further economic growth in China. They warn, however, that if the government does not ensure that all citizens enjoy those rights, it may face rising public anger as developers tear down thousands of old dwellings each year, forcing people out of homes they have lived in for decades.