November 15, 2013, by Editor

China Continues Its Grand Experiment

Written by Zhengxu Wang.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee closed its Third Plenum on Tuesday, an event eagerly anticipated by the public and press. Right before it convened, the party’s propaganda outlets had played up the expectation that major policy breakthroughs would come from the gathering. Even Xi Jinping, the party’s general secretary and China’s president, indicated just weeks before the plenum that it was going to be a milestone in China’s reform history.

After four days of closed-door debates and deliberation, the Central Committee’s more than 300 members approved a policy plan that vows to “comprehensively” deepen reforms. That was expected. Xi himself was clearly determined to use the plenum to set the tone of the party’s work for his term in office.

Xi and his team treated the plenum as a major turning point in China’s history, carrying the same weight of the plenum 35 years ago in late 1978 that put China on to Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening-up” project. The policy plan, called a “decision” in the party’s terminology, was meant to be as critical as the document adopted at the 1993 plenum, which formally pronounced China’s all-out effort to pursue marketisation.

The details are yet to be revealed, as the actual document won’t be made available until several weeks later. Places in the draft still need fine-tuning, and once considered final, the document will first need to be circulated within the party’s rank and file before it is made fully public. Yet, the thrust has already been publicised by the communiqué released on Tuesday. With the communiqué, the party declared the plenum a success, claiming that a strong consensus to push reforms forward had been achieved.

The document is indeed intended to communicate a focus on “reform”, which it discussed in effusive terms, mentioning the word 59 times. And it is reform of “institutions” (mentioned 44 times), and “deepening” measures (mentioned 30 times) that preoccupied. The “reforms” are to be “comprehensive”. Almost all policy areas are targeted, including the economy, the political system, and cultural, social, environmental, fiscal, defence, science and technology, judicial, healthcare and other areas.

They are ambitious reforms, too. Regarding the economy, the party aims to build a fully marketised system in which the market instead of the state will play the decisive role in allocating economic resources. And the efforts will aim at “more efficient”, “more equitable” and “more sustainable” economic development. In terms of social reform, it aims at “better protection of and improvement in people’s livelihood”, “enhancing social equity and justice” and “advancing common prosperity”. Regarding cultural development, environmental protection, public services and many other areas, similarly lofty goals are emphasised.

Politically, although the party’s rule will continue to be upheld and even strengthened, the party aims at developing a “broader, wider and better functioning democracy”. The party wants to explore a diverse range of democratic institutions and procedures, such as deliberative democracy and democratic rule at the grassroots level.

Yet, beneath this unexceptionable language, there is not much to be uncovered in terms of actual reform plans. All are mostly intentions and objectives, while a search of policies seems to generate few concrete results. Whether the full document to be released in a few weeks’ time will satisfy our curiosity in this regard remains to be seen.

But some of these intentions or objectives may indeed contradict each other, indicating that the nation’s top ruling elite are finding it increasingly difficult to balance oft-competing priorities. For example, it is all very well to emphasise the need to further marketise the economy. But at the same time, the party also vows to retain the state sector as the main pillar of the economy, which is the embodiment of a monopoly, as the situation in China’s energy, telecom and banking industries vividly demonstrates. How can the market play a decisive role in resource allocation if it remains in the mercy of a handful of gigantic state firms?

And, of course, no one could agree that true “people’s democracy” could be achieved without the ruling party giving enough space to a legal opposition and to media freedom, two things the party appears completely unwilling to concede. Worse, the plenum decided to build a super body in the newly instituted State Security Commission. Judging from available information, this body is intended to enhance state control over both internal and external security, generating apprehensions as to why the allegedly reform-oriented party is aiming at tightening state control over society.

So, the bottomline is that, even if the party succeeds in the coming years in translating these ambitions into effective policy actions, China’s state-led development model will continue, and the party is determined to keep its grip on power as ever. However, within this large framework, efforts to make the economy more dynamic, efficient and sustainable, the political system more transparent and responsive, social policies more inclusive and equitable, and the legal system more professional and independent, will be pursued to the extent they can.

The party likes to say that its project of “building socialism with Chinese characteristics” constitutes a “grand experiment” or grand undertaking (weida shijian). But one can see that the party’s project amounts to a continuous struggle to resist the law of gravity: it is trying to steer clear of the path leading to a combination of liberal democracy and full market economy.

The world, especially countries in the developing South, certainly welcomes such a search for an alternative model. But whether this is a viable project remains an open question and is to be observed over the next few years. The plenum has set 2020 as the date that most of its objectives are to be realised. One of the most challenging questions in our time, and one with implications for the world as well, will likely have an answer by then: Can a modern economy and society be governed with a one-party political structure and still thrive?

Zhengxu Wang is associate professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, and deputy director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. A version of this piece was published with Indian Express on 15 Nov as “Party of Platitude”.

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