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China Approves Amendments to Constitution on Human Rights

By Chris Buckley

The New York Times
March 15, 2004

BEIJING, March 14 - China's Parliament formally approved constitutional amendments on Sunday that address private property and human rights. At the same time, the country's new prime minister promised to rein in the overheated economy.

The steps came on the closing day of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, during which Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and other top officials continued their efforts to recast the government as a protector of the poor and powerless.

Chinese legal experts and even lawmakers said the changes, which were decided in closed-door sessions of the governing Communist Party last fall and formally approved Sunday, would not remove government restrictions on protest. China's Constitution is subordinate to the party and is amended often to reflect changes in official ideology.

In a news conference at the end of the legislative session, Mr. Wen indicated that the government would maintain a piecemeal approach to political changes while focusing on the economy and the rickety banking system.

"I think this test won't be any less easy than SARS," said Mr. Wen, referring to the epidemic that spread across China last year. "If we adjust well, we may be able to keep the ship of the Chinese economy steady at a relatively fast clip. If we don't, it will be difficult to avoid setbacks."


The 2,900-member legislature approved 13 changes to the Constitution. "The state respects and preserves human rights," says one. "Citizens' lawful private property is inviolable," states another, as well as saying the state will protect private property and give compensation when property is confiscated.

The legislature also authorized introducing major slogans associated with the country's semiretired leader, Jiang Zemin, into the Constitution, thus placing him on an official ideological dais beside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

The constitutional changes were unlikely to have any direct influence on the outcomes of court cases, said Chinese legal experts, because the courts here usually do not test laws and government decisions for fidelity to the Constitution.

"The new constitutional provisions are very vague, and won't mean much unless laws are revised to conform with them," said He Weifang, a professor at the Beijing University law school. "They're more important symbolically rather than legally."

The private property amendment was a recognition of private business's growing economic and political might, rather than an effective legal guarantee, said Mr. He and other legal experts.

The view was echoed even by lawmakers. "The Constitution isn't a law," said Zhao Linzhong, a businessman and national legislator from Zhejiang. "The changes will settle people's minds."

At a news conference marking his first year as China's top government official, Mr. Wen said he would try to make officials more law abiding and honest by encouraging public scrutiny and collective decision-making. But he also said the Constitution must be left under party jurisdiction.

Asked about the government's stance on Taiwan's coming presidential election and referendum on relations with the mainland, Mr. Wen kept to the muted approach taken by mainland officials in recent weeks.

On March 20, Taiwanese will choose between the incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, who China fears will lead the island toward independence, and the Nationalist Party candidate, Lian Chan, who favors a more conciliatory approach to the mainland. Chinese officials have generally avoided threats that may drive more votes to Mr. Chen.

Mr. Wen said his government was adamantly opposed to any form of Taiwanese independence, but he avoided mention of military action.

Mr. Wen also dismissed a recent call by a prominent Chinese surgeon, Jiang Yanyong, to reverse the official condemnation of the Tiananmen Square political protests of 1989. At the outset of the parliamentary session, Dr. Jiang circulated a letter calling on top government and party leaders to review the student-led protests and condemn the use of force to squelch them.

"Unity and stability are really more important than anything else, and that's what I'm most concerned with as prime minister," Mr. Wen said.

 

 
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