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2020-05-28 13:23:27

The National People’s Congress approved China’s first-ever civil code on Thursday, the final day of the “two sessions” political meetings in Beijing.

The document — a collection of laws related to civil affairs, including property, marriage, family, personal rights, and inheritance — is slated to go into effect in January of next year. The code is aimed at better protecting individuals’ personal information and property, making it easier to sue for divorce or sexual harassment, and delineating a clearer boundary between markets and the government.

In the run-up to Thursday’s vote, legal analysts suggested that the civil code was the government’s attempt to boost private-sector investment by reaffirming a commitment to protecting and respecting property rights, particularly in the wake of the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. The code will also be a boon to judges, serving as a single, unified body of law on which they may base their verdicts.

But the civil code’s real impact will depend on its implementation, analysts say, and may be limited given that it consists largely of already-enacted laws.

The new civil code has been a long time in the making. There have been four attempts to adopt one since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. The version adopted Thursday is the culmination of six years’ worth of drafts, and has been adjusted as a result of the pandemic. Since the National People’s Congress convened last week, the civil code has received nearly 900,000 public comments.

Here are some of the highlights:

Marriage Rights

Laws related to family and marriage make up a significant portion of the civil code. One standout stipulation: If a person conceals a “serious disease” before marriage, their spouse is within their rights to seek an annulment.

Also under the new civil code, married couples will only share debt if they sign for a loan together, or if they later agree that a debt will be shared. In addition, personal expenses beyond basic household living costs count toward a person’s own debt unless they can prove the purchases benefitted their partner as well.

The civil code institutes controversial 30-day “cool-off periods” aimed at deterring impulsive divorces. In December, an NPC delegate objected to the proposal, suggesting it could lead to people being trapped under the same roof as an abusive partner.

Months later, lawmakers determined that the policy would only apply to couples mutually agreeing to separate through their local marriage registration bureau, the conventional channel. It would not apply, however, in cases where one party was suing their reluctant partner for divorce.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment and abuse are attracting growing attention in China as survivors break their silence and speak out, often on social media.

The newly adopted civil code contains two adjustments to relevant existing laws. One is a stipulation that victims who were sexually abused when they were minors will be legally allowed to sue the perpetrators when they turn 18 — even if several years have passed since the abuse occurred. This would effectively close a loophole whereby abusers would escape punishment because the statute of limitations had elapsed by the time their victims came forward.

The second change is that “school” is now listed as one of three specific locations where sexual harassment laws apply, with the others being “enterprises” and “(state) organs.” Previous legislation only vaguely referred to sexual harassment being prohibited at yongren danwei, or “employer work units.”

Falling Objects

When injury or death results from a falling object, it can be challenging for authorities to assign blame, or for victims to seek compensation. In July of last year, a 5-year-old boy was struck by a falling window and died several days later. His family reportedly paid 75,000 yuan ($10,800) in medical bills but only received 3,000 yuan in compensation from the property management.

Under the new civil code, throwing or releasing objects from tall buildings is expressly illegal. Moreover, if an object harms an individual and the perpetrator cannot be identified, all residents of the building must chip in to pay compensation, unless they can prove they were away from the premises at the time of the incident.

Tenants and Homeowners

The new civil code states that income generated from a property should go to the property owners and not property management. This rule is aimed at cases in which property management have posted ads in common areas, including on compound walls and in elevators, to bring in extra revenue.

Controversially, the civil code also suggests that homeowners may need to pay to renew their 70-year leases on real estate, when in the past such leases were renewed automatically and without a fee. (In China, land cannot be owned by companies or individuals; instead, it is leased from the government for up to 70 years at a time.)

The civil code offers greater protections for renters: Landlords may no longer evict their tenants midway through a lease just because they want to sell the property.

Good Samaritans

Over the past decade, there have been numerous high-profile incidents of good Samaritans rushing to the aid of people who suffer injuries — especially the elderly — only to later be blamed for causing them harm. As a result, many in China are now reluctant to assist strangers.

To reverse this trend, some cities and provinces have adopted their own good Samaritan laws. The civil code, however, will offer universal protections for the first time. Specifically, it states that people who help others will not be held legally responsible even if their help causes harm to the victim — and such individuals may even be compensated if they incur personal damage while trying to assist.

Seat Thieves

Several videos about people in China rudely refusing to move despite being seated somewhere they shouldn’t be — in a handicap subway seat or a long-distance train seat assigned to someone else, for example — have gone viral on the Chinese internet in recent years, generating intense discussion about how such delinquents should be dealt with.

The civil code addresses this issue once and for all, stating that passengers must adhere to the information — seat numbers and times, as well as train numbers — included on their transport tickets. If they take a train for which they do not have a ticket, they must pay the difference in price between the two fares, and may be refused service by railway personnel — an informal system that has already been observed in China for years.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Icons: Iconscout/People Visual)

(Header image: Delegates of the National People’s Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 22, 2020. People Visual)