It was only in the past three decades that the ruling Communist Party in China allowed people to own a residence. Today, around 96% of city dwellers own a house, usually in skyscrapers. Despite this leniency, the party ensures that the state still owns the land under the housing structures. Private property, party leader Xi Jinping says, is a Western system. He rejects the notion of universal values, such as the right to own a house and the land on which it is located. Only the party, he said, can define China’s particular core values.
Yet millions of Chinese living in private residences seem to disagree. Since the 1990s, many have formed Homeowners Associations (HOAs) to demand a say in the management of their properties. For them, individual property requires individual freedom and other rights which are universal in nature. In Beijing, officials have a head start on this movement. They have started introducing HOAs to neighborhoods across the city, according to the Financial Times. They understand that good governance of local residences builds trust.
But there was a hitch. Who chooses candidates to run for HOA leadership? Many urban landlords demand a full say in the selection of candidates rather than the party imposing its preferred candidates. They want local bodies to be autonomous and responsive to issues such as garbage collection and utility costs. In a spirit of democracy, the inhabitants are fighting for free and fair elections.
Yet the party is pushing back. If you allow people to vote for the HOA chairman of their own accord, they can one day be expected to do the same for national leaders, according to a community governance expert in Beijing, according to the Financial Times.
Many world leaders have challenged Xi in his rejection of universal values. In a phone call with him on February 10, President Joe Biden expressed his concerns about Chinese leaders obstructing the rule of law in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwanese democracy, and abusing the freedoms of Muslim-owned Muslims. minority in the western province of Xinjiang. Yet the real challenge for Chinese leaders is more local, as evidenced by the HOA elections as well as in the cases of Chinese workers demanding unions and farmers seeking to elect village chiefs.
In his speeches, Xi criticizes the idea that values such as equality before the law are universal for humanity. Yet while values like those embedded in a democracy may have roots in the West, they have been broadly adapted over the centuries. They are bubbling up now even in Beijing homes. On their own, landlords in China define their common social interests, organizing their neighbors to insist on accountability and transparency of services for their properties. This awareness of individual rights and freedoms is as natural and universal as possible.
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