Beijing set to approve proposed civil code outline

The poster for a 1958 movie about five Communist Party soldiers who refused to surrender to Japanese troops. A historian who questioned whether the men were as heroic as the state has said was ordered to publish an apology last year. The draft provis
The poster for a 1958 movie about five Communist Party soldiers who refused to surrender to Japanese troops. A historian who questioned whether the men were as heroic as the state has said was ordered to publish an apology last year. The draft provisions would make defaming "heroes and martyrs" a civil offence.PHOTO: WEIBO

Draft provisions bring nation closer to law that better protects civil rights for all citizens

Chinese lawmakers are set to pass the draft general provisions of a civil code today, bringing the country closer to enacting a law that will better protect the civil rights of its 1.38 billion citizens.

Among the areas covered is lowering the age at which minors are considered to be capable of civil action, from 10 to eight - making them able, for example, to have a say in custody battles during their parents' divorce proceedings.

Other issues include the protection of personal data, obligations of parents and children to support each other and rights over property, including virtual property.

The provisions also mark out social responsibilities - including one that makes defaming "heroes and martyrs" a civil offence.

The civil code must "increase public awareness of the importance of obeying rules" and "promote order", said Mr Li Jianguo, vice-chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee, in his presentation of the draft last Wednesday to the NPC - China's Parliament - at its ongoing annual session.

The general provisions will form the framework for the compilation of the all-encompassing civil code. The target for completion is 2020.

While the decision to compile a civil code has been welcomed by many, some law practitioners and scholars are concerned that current political conditions might not be conducive to developing a code that gives people the widest possible rights.

The government, under President Xi Jinping, has tightened its control over the media and Internet, and has cracked down on human rights lawyers. Chinese lawmakers over the past week debated the draft and are set to vote on it today, the last day of this year's NPC session.

Several amendments were made, including one that provides more protection to "good Samaritans" who help strangers in emergencies.

There have been cases where they were accused of causing harm by the very people they had helped.

Officials working on the civil code anticipate more suggestions from all quarters, including the public.

"The hardest and most difficult part of the (civil code) compilation is handling everyone's suggestions," the deputy head of the NPC's legal advisory body, Mr Zhang Rongshun, told reporters last week. He added that more than 70,000 recommendations were received during the drafting of the general provisions.

Indicating the difficulty that the NPC faces in compiling the code, Mr Li cautioned that the target completion date of 2020 might be delayed.

"Quality trumps speed, so the schedule is subject to change," he said in his presentation.

China has attempted to put together a civil code since the 1950s, without success, because of political turmoil, the absence of conducive conditions and the enormous difficulties faced in doing so.

In the 1950s, the project was started and then abandoned because such a law was not compatible with the planned economy of the time, while in the 1960s, the chaotic Cultural Revolution ended a new attempt to write one.

It was not until 1979, at the start of reforms, that another effort was made. But it was decided then that conditions were not ripe for a full code. Instead, the government enacted specific civil laws such as inheritance law and contract law.

In 1986, the General Principles of the Civil Law was an interim solution as China went through rapid social and economic changes and moved towards a market economy. This law now provides the basis for the new general provisions.

Then, in October 2014, a legal reform plan was passed to strengthen the rule of law, including the development of a civil code.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Beijing set to approve proposed civil code outline'. Print Edition | Subscribe