Law on paper and law in practice: the contradictions of condominium governance in urban China

Ngai Ming Yip, Yang Zheng, and Sheng Jiang


The economic reform in China from a socialist planned economy to a capitalist market system has re-introduced private ownership of property. Nearly all housing in urban China is multi-owned, and condominium ownership was adapted in the late 1980s by largely modelling the condominium framework in Hong Kong. This legal and institutional framework demarcates the ownership of the private and common areas while at the same time furnishes property owners with an efficient system of organizing the collective governance of their- properly.

These new forms of autonomy and decision-making capacity for property owners provided by the condominium system in China, however, contradict the political logic of the one-party, semi-authoritarian socialist state. The new autonomous collective decision-making capacity in these privately governed developments is perceived to be a threat to the hegemonic power of the state. This contradiction results in a constant struggle between condominium owners whose ownership and management rights are inscribed in law on the one hand, and grassroots bureaucrats as enforcers of the law who attempt to subsume condominiums under their control on the other. In fact, this discrepancy in the law on paper and the law in practice reflects subtle but deep-seated contradictions between emergent capitalist economic institutions and historically entrenched socialist political institutions that are becoming increasingly apparent in other socio-political arenas of China. In this respect, this chapter also helps to shed light on whether the literature on condominiiun governance needs to be critically adapted to countries of the global south.

This chapter explores the roots of the contradiction between condominium laws in China on paper and how such laws unfold in practice. It argues that condominium laws in China cannot be taken at simple face value but have to be understood in the context of a highly politicized environment. Despite Chinese authorities’ frequent claims about then- determination to rationalize the legal environment, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparently depends more on the logic of ‘rule by law’ than ‘rale of law’ in then- governing practice.

This chapter begins by describing the foundational principles of the condominium system, which is followed by an introduction of its institutional design and particularities in China. The subsequent section discusses the social control

Law on paper and law in practice 235 system iii China, which is at the heart of the contradiction between law on paper and the law in practice. Next, we offer empirical illustrations of how local governments intervene in the operations of the homeowners’ associations (HOA), followed by a discussion of the contradictions in condominium law at the operational, institutional, and structural levels. The chapter concludes by pinpointing the discrepancy between condominium law on paper and in practice as embedded in the clash of the economic logics of China’s condominium framework and the political logic of China’s party state in preserving its power hegemony.

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