November 13, 2013, by Editor

Third Plenum report: Business as Usual?

Written by Kerry Brown.

When we think of political meetings in the west – conventions or party conferences – we tend to try to work out what the interests of the people participating are, and what they are able to take away from the decisions of the meeting back to their various constituencies and networks in order to mobilize them for some broader political objective in the short to medium term future. Party conferences on this model are times when fresh ideas are promoted, new initiatives socialized and then embedded, and an act of energizing for the most important activists occurs.

The third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China which has concluded after three days in Beijing on 12th November raised great expectations before it happened. Part of this remains the fixation with the Plenum of 1978, also the third, though this time of the 11th Congress. The impact of that seems to grow more important as the years go on. The idea that this year’s plenum would equal that in impact is little more than misled media spin. The simple fact that the Communique issued after the Plenum closed on 12th November mentioned explicitly that it followed Deng Xiaoping Thought underlined that, as with every other major Party event since 1978, this is simply another child of the profound and lasting impact of Deng and his immense shadow over everything that has happened in China in the last 35 years. A fundamental repudiation of Dengist attitudes and ideas would clearly, reading the Communique of this meeting carefully, be regarded as feckless political suicide. This might be Deng 2.0, but Deng it is. So no changes there.

The conglomeration of acknowledgements of ideological debt in the Communique is also important. The Three Represents gets a mention, the brainchild of Jiang Zemin, and scientific development, which is associated with the Hu period. Both of these were devised by Wang Huning, who remains important in Xi’s leadership, and must rank as one of the lowest profile but most durable figures in contemporary elite Chinese politics. The China Dream, mercifully, does not make an appearance.

In tone and style, the Plenum communiqué sits comfortably with documents produced by the Party over the last three decades. There is nothing disruptive about its language, beyond a slightly startling explicit mention of the finance sector and its prime importance in developing a service sector economy in China. Perhaps this can be seen as a tribute to the amazingly flexibility of Dengist theory. In 1977 the idea that within four decades China would make the creation of a finance sector a national economic priority would have been regarded as wild fantasizing. Today, with the creation of a Free Trade Zone in Shanghai, that is evidently precisely what this leadership intend to do.

Beyond the language and tone, there is also the issue of presentation. This meeting, held behind closed doors at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing, with no public events or media events, retains the flavor of a political organization that is fond of secrecy, likes to keep its cards close to its chest, and remains profoundly wary of the booming world of chaotic, transparency social media that laps around it. Had Xi Jinping been posting updates on Weibo, or Li Keqiang doing podcasts after key sessions, and the main leaders making bold public statements in a huge press conference after the meeting closed, then perhaps the outside world would have sat up and started thinking they were seeing something radical and new. But for this time at least, understatement and orderly process win the day, and that shows that this leadership, in their souls, are worthy successors of their cautious predecessors.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Politics and Executive Director of China Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is non-resident senior Fellow of the CPI and Team Leader of the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN).

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