China's national legislature on Wednesday passed the General Provisions of the Civil Law, the opening chapter of a civil code planned to be enacted in 2020.
The General Provisions were adopted at the closing meeting of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), with 2,782 of the 2,838 deputies present voting in favor. It takes effect on Oct. 1 this year.
Compiling a civil code, a decision made by the central leadership in 2014, has been deemed as a "must-do" to promote the country's rule of law and modernize state governance, and as a crucial move in building China into a moderately prosperous society by 2020.
A two-step approach has been designed for developing the code. The adoption of the General Provisions, which lays down basic principles for regulating civil activities, marks the crucial first step.
The second step, the compiling of five individual books that deal with property, contract, tort liability, marriage and inheritance, started late last year. Work on the books will be stepped up.
"With the General Provisions, 1.3 billion Chinese will feel more secure and enjoy more equal opportunities and dignity," said Sun Xianzhong, a national lawmaker and deputy head of the China Civil Law Society.
"The birth of the General Provisions is not the finishing line. There is a long way ahead for such a huge project as compiling a civil code," said Sun, who has spent years pushing for the civil code.
The General Provisions are based on a 1986 version, also called the General Principles of Civil Law.
Though historically significant, the 1986 General Principles included some outdated provisions.
Furthermore, with the promulgation of many separate civil laws over past decades, judges might hand down different verdicts in the same case as they turn to different laws when making judgments.
To better handle new conditions arising in China's socio-economic development, lawmakers have revised a number of clauses in the 1986 version and added new ones to better protect individuals and organizations.
The General Provisions add an article for the protection of the interests of fetuses. Fetuses that require protection in the succession of estates and receipt of donations shall be deemed as having the capacity for civil rights.
Yao Jianlong, a law professor with Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, hailed the new provision as "great progress."
"If the law fails to properly recognize, respect and protect the rights of fetuses, problems could arise for protecting their rights after they are born," said Yao.
The General Provisions lower the statutory age limit for minors with limited capacity for civil conduct from 10 to eight years.
The move is primarily designed to raise minors' awareness of their rights and obligations, said Zhang Rongshun, vice chairman of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee.
The General Provisions stipulate that an adult with no or limited capacity for civil conduct shall be eligible for a guardian, meaning seniors unable to care for themselves will be placed under guardianship.
The 1986 General Principles prescribe guardians only for minors and mentally ill people with no or limited capacity for civil conduct.
In addition, the General Provisions grant the status of "special legal persons" to rural economic collectives and villagers' committees, among other organizations, which will facilitate their civil activities, such as entering into contracts, and better protect their members' rights and interests.
Zhang described the new legal document as "keeping with the times and also forward-looking," evident by the protection for personal information, online virtual assets and intellectual property rights.
The provisions also stipulate that civil subjects must be aware of the need to save resources and protect the environment in their civil activities.
The "green" principle reflects China's need to strike a balance between its population of 1.3 billion and the environment for a long time to come.
Many opinions and revisions have been taken on board during the process of making the general provisions.
Last year, the draft went through three readings at the bi-monthly sessions of the NPC Standing Committee. Public opinions were solicited multiple times and symposia held to gather suggestions. More than 70,000 opinions were collected.
Upon suggestions by lawmakers, a new provision was added during the just-concluded annual session to hold people accountable for damaging the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs.
People who harm the name, portrait, reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs, thus hurting the public interest, shall bear civil liability, the provision states.
DREAM COMING TRUE
It has long been a dream of China to develop a civil code of its own.
Drafting of the General Provisions started in March 2015, following a decision by the Communist Party of China to compile a civil code at a key meeting in October 2014.
In 1954, 1962, 1979 and 2001 respectively, China made separate attempts to draft a civil law, all halted due to various reasons including political turmoil.
This time China is readier than ever to see the task through to completion.
Since 1979, a series of separate laws have been introduced, including the Property Law, Inheritance Law and Tort Liability Law, laying a good foundation for compilation of the civil code.
Lawmakers will make necessary revisions to the existing laws to integrate them into the code, said Zhang Rongshun with the NPC Standing Committee.
According to the legislative schedule, the civil code's individual books are expected to be submitted as a whole for a first reading at a bi-monthly session of the NPC Standing Committee in 2018. The NPC Standing Committee will then organize separate reviews of the books.
"We need a complete civil law system to adapt to the well-off society we are building," he said.