Eminent domain (dominium eminens, or “supreme lordship” in Latin), a doctrine that allows a ruling entity/state to seize private property without consent, has always existed in organized human society. Different societies, in different times, have exercised this right in different ways: some completely ruthlessly, some more circumspectly.
In the United States, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution places severe limitations on a government’s exercise of eminent domain. The exact wording is “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This wording has at times been interpreted literally, but at other times “public use” has morphed into the rather vague and elastic notion of “public interest.” Thus we had the City of New London, CT take “blighted” private land in 2005 and transfer it to a private developer solely to increase municipal revenues. The Supreme Court affirmed New London’s right to do so, but the public outcry has been such that several states are considering state legislation to further define and limit government’s exercise of eminent domain. Obviously, this is a debate still in progress, but one thing is clear. In a functioning democracy, government does not have automatic right to seize private property; and if the rare seizure does occur, it had better be for a very good (and very legal) reason.
Here, in contrast, is what happened in the PRC. Earlier this year, government thugs broke into the house of Mrs. Zhang Shulan in the Tongzhou suburb of Beijing and chased her out. Local Communist Party apparatchiki wanted the property, as well as other small properties like Zhang Shulan’s, to develop the suburb into what they hoped would become “China’s Manhattan.”
But Zhang Shulan didn’t have anything like the Bill of Rights to protect her or at least to give her a fighting chance. The only recourse she had left was a desperate one: she set herself on fire, hoping no doubt that someone would take notice. She survived, but was terribly disfigured.
So far, no one except a handful of media has taken much notice. Certainly not the PRC government, still less the Party; for forced evictions like Zhang Shulan’s – very profitable indeed for the Party and local governments, ruinous for those evicted – are apparently the norm throughout the PRC.
This is a good opportunity for us to reflect what a precious gift we have in our Constitution, and to consider what will happen to all of us if it is changed to give government still wider powers.
If you can’t have property safely and securely, you are property.
And that’s the essence of socialism.