Why China's homeowners prefer universal rights

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the Monitor's Editorial Board
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Only in the past three decades has China’s ruling Communist Party allowed people to own a residence. Now about 96% of city dwellers own a home, usually in high-rises. Despite this leniency, the party ensures the state still owns the land under housing structures. Private ownership, contends party leader Xi Jinping, is a “Western” system. He dismisses the notion of “universal values,” such as a right to own a home and the land it sits on. Only the party, he says, can define China’s particular “core values.”

Yet millions of Chinese living in private residences seem to disagree. Since the 1990s, many have formed homeowner associations (HOAs) to demand a say in the management of their properties. To them, individual ownership requires individual freedom and other rights that are universal in nature. In Beijing, officials are one step ahead of this movement. They have started to introduce HOAs in city neighborhoods, according to the Financial Times. They understand that proper governance of local residences builds trust.

But there’s been a hitch. Who chooses the candidates to run in elections for leaders of the HOAs? Many urban homeowners demand a full say in selecting candidates rather than the party imposing its preferred candidates. They want the local bodies to be self-governing and responsive to issues such as trash collection and utility fees. In a taste of democracy, residents are fighting for free and fair elections.

Yet the party is pushing back. “If you allow people to vote for HOA president out of their own will, they may one day expect to do the same for national leaders,” says a community governance scholar in Beijing, according to the Financial Times.

Many world leaders have challenged Mr. Xi in his dismissal of universal values. In a phone call with him on Feb. 10, President Joe Biden shared his “concerns” about China’s leaders trammeling on rule of law in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan’s democracy, and abusing the freedoms of minority Muslims in western Xinjiang province. Yet the real challenge for China’s rulers is more local, as witnessed in HOA elections as well as in cases of Chinese workers demanding unions and farmers seeking to elect village leaders.

In speeches, Mr. Xi criticizes the idea that values such as equality before the law are universal to humanity. Yet while values like those embedded in a democracy may have roots in the West, they have been adapted widely over centuries. They are now bubbling up even in Beijing homes. All by themselves, homeowners in China are defining their shared social interests, organizing neighbors to insist on accountability and transparency in services for their properties. This awakening in thought about individual rights and liberties is as natural – and universal – as can be.

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