February 09, 2008
No trespassing in Chinese law?
Posted by Donald Clarke

A recent discussion on the Chinalaw listserv has revealed a fascinating loophole in Chinese real property law: nowhere does it seem to contain a clear prohibition against trespassing. The relevant laws regarding state-prosecuted offenses don't seem to include anything like this; at most, one is forbidden from disturbing order at a workplace, but that doesn't turn on whether one is trespassing or not, and is not an offense against the employer's rights to a particular physical space. On the civil side, one could (if one wished) construct an anti-trespassing norm by combining various provisions in the Property Law: Art. 2, stating that rights in rem include the right to exclude, Art. 32, which says that a rightholder can sue for damages resulting from infringement of his rights, and Art. 35, which says that an aggrieved rightholder may request a court to eliminate an impairment of the right. But whether this amounts to an action against trespassing - in particular, to an action for ejectment, or an injunction against further trespass - doesn't seem clear. A Chinese scholar specializing in real estate law, in his contribution to this discussion, said it does not; according to him, the most Chinese law requires is that someone entering onto the property of another should "restrain [himself]", minimize damage, and compensate for any damage done.

The interesting question, of course, is why this should be so. My hunch is that it's connected to China's pre-reform economy, in which all important urban spaces were under the more or less direct control of a governmental or quasi-governmental entity with access to tools of physical coercion (i.e., people with clubs). Physically as well as politically, pre-reform China was a very closed society - workplaces and apartment buildings were often walled or fenced, with all entrances manned by guards. Trespassing would have been difficult to accomplish simply as a practical matter. Furthermore, much urban land was owned by the state (technically, all of it after 1982), and the particular way of understanding state ownership of land may have contributed. In the US, we have no problem saying that citizens can be trespassers on state-owned land, because the state owns land more or less just like any private party owns land. But in China, state ownership, sometimes called "ownership by the whole people" (the terms are explicitly said to be synonymous) is sometimes and for some purposes interpreted as direct ownership by the citizens of China. Obviously, this couldn't be true in any practical sense - you would need the consent of all joint owners to alienate, for example - but perhaps it's felt just enough to make a notion of trespassing unthinkable.

It's hard to believe - and to the best of my knowledge it's not true - that in China you can simply waltz into someone's living room (provided the door is unlocked) and make yourself comfortable provided you act with restraint and are willing to compensate for any damage you cause. But the legal basis for saying you can't is surprisingly obscure.

China, Comparative Law, Law & Society | Bookmark

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