Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts From ‘Rustless Screws’ to ‘Nail Houses’: The Evolution of Property Rights in China

From ‘Rustless Screws’ to ‘Nail Houses’: The Evolution of Property Rights in China


This article addresses property rights in China under four headings. I begin by placing the Chinese case within the larger context of property rights literature. The second section reviews the existing scholarship on property rights in China and identifies existing lacunae. The third section provides the broad contours of the contemporary Chinese intellectual and political discourse over property rights in China. And finally, I offer several cases of property rights that illustrate the variation in the scope of the concept of property rights in China and suggest possible avenues for future research.

The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive the people of this is in fact to deprive them of their liberty.

– Arthur Lee, Virginia, 1775

You reproach us with planning to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels1

The fact that a legal or economic model does not exist for an activity or a behavior is no reason to oppose it, because the laws can develop out of experience and practice.

– Wu Guoping, Yangtze Water Resources Commission2


I would like to thank Wang Jiejia and Lan Lan for their able assistance. I also wish to thank Stephen Haggard, Gary Miller, Barry Naughton and Douglass North for their useful comments on an earlier draft.

[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. (New York, NY: Signet Classics, 1998), p. 69.

[2] Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer Turner, Water Conflict Resolution in China, 2004 China Environment Forum Meeting, Jan 28, 2004, in 7 China Environment Series 99-101 (2005), cited in Beth E. Kinne, “Developing Property Rights in Water in Modern China,” unpublished L.L.M. thesis, Seattle, University of Washington School of Law, 2005.

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