Earlier this month, I attended a Chinese-American Conference in Beijing on property rights co-sponsored by the William and Mary Law School and the Tsinghua University Law School. One purpose of the conference was to award in absentia the Brigham-Kanner Prize to retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for her contributions to understanding the law of property. The intensive two-day discussions on property rights were open, animated, and cordial. They also revealed deep ironies in both the Chinese and American approaches to property rights.
On the Chinese side, much grand rhetoric spoke of the power and wisdom of the socialist state, which until 1988 had doggedly held that private property was illegal. Even today, Chinese property law does not grant outright ownerships to any of its citizens. Instead, it draws a basic distinction between urban and rural lands. The former are owned by the state on behalf of the people. The latter are owned by collectives that parcel out use rights to its various members. In both of these situations, the individual person in possession of a particular parcel of land has a set of precarious use rights that are respected in any dispute between private individuals, but can be overridden by the action of the state or the collectives (which are themselves under government control).