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China's 'pengchant' for a penal code

A survivor of the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) has become the principal architect of an ambitious effort to make China a nation ruled by law.

Now in his late 70s, Peng Zhen, former mayor of Peking, was the star performer at the National People's Congress Sept. 2. Tall, high-domed, Peng Zhen spoke in an easy conversational tone from his seat beside Madame Soong Chingling (widow of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and set up a republic) on the restrum.

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Mr. Peng, who last year said, "People are hungry for law," this year submitte drafts of several new laws and revisions of old laws to the National People's Congress. Among them were (1) a marriage law, (2) a citizenlaw law, (3) a law on taxation of joint ventures by Chinese and overseas investors, (4) a personal income tax law.

Mr. Peng was one of the earliest and most prominent victims of the Cultural Revolution. He was considered one of the chief lieutenants of Liu Shaochi, the main target of the ultraleftists who came to power during that upheaval. Rampaging Red Guards vilified him, struggled against him, and humiliated him. Eventually he was shipped off to the countryside, where, it is said, he lived the life of an ordinary commune member and got on well with the peasants of the region.

Today, restored to the Politburo and one of the vice-chairmen of the standing committee of the National People's Congress as well, Mr. Peng has been working for the past couple of years in the field of legal reform. It is not a headline-catching topic, but it will have a profound effect on the kind of country China is and hopes to be.

China is and will remain a communist country. But the present leadership senses that the whole country cries out for a framework of law, of predictability. It senses the country wants an end to the era of the personality cult and the caprice and arbitrariness that characterized the rule of Mao Tsetung's first heir-apparent, Lin Biao, and then of Lin's successors, the so-called "gang of four" headed by Mao's widow, Jiang Qing.

Last year criminal law was reformed, and this year reforms have spread to marriage and divorce, citizenship, and income tax. Language in the existing marriage law has been tightened up so that a spouse can file for divorce and eventually obtain it if he or she can show there is complete alienation between the two partners.

Chinese society usually criticizes the party asking for a divorce -- almost always the wife. Under the new law, if she sticks to her demand throughout the obligatory mediation process, she will get her way.

China will follow the practice of many other countries in denying dual citizenship, reinforcing the demand most Southeast Asian countries have made that overseas Chinese communities choose either one citizenship or the other. On income tax, joint ventures with foreign investors will be taxed 33 percent. Individuals earning more than 800 yuan ($532) per year will be taxed on a sliding scale from five percent to 45 percent.

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So far, Chinese individuals have paid no local income tax, nor have foreign residents. Peng Zhen drew laughter and animated comments from the floor when he disclosed that only 20 Chinese currently earn more than 800 yuan per year. Top government officials receive 400 yuan ($260) per month. The tax burden initially will fall almost entirely on the resident foreign community. But as the modernization program gathers momentum it is hoped that the 800 yuan figure will not sound impossibly out of sight for an increasing number of Chinese.

Mr. Peng also spent much time talking about direct elections at the county level, a reform introduced experimentally last year. It is now being expanded to the nation as a whole. It is a small but important step on the way to democratic national elections. Mr. Peng stressed that any three individuals have the right to nominate a candidate for their local People's Congress. He openly deplored that some people thus chosen had their candidates rejected because they were out of favor with the local authorities.

The next plenary session of the National People's Congress open to foreign journalists will be on Sept 7. Party Chairman Hua Guofeng, who impassively listened to Mr. Peng and other speakers, will deliver his swan song as prime minister that day.

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