Wednesday, Sep 3, 2014, 7:40 AM CST – China

Politics

Third Plenum

A New Start?

The Communist Party of China has outlined an ambitious new road map for reforms in the next decade

The Jingxi Hotel in Beijing, suspected to be the venue for the Third Plenum which was held at an undisclosed location from November 9 to 12, 2013 Photo by IC

Locals show a smartphone app dedicated to news about the Third Plenum, Yongzhou County, Chongqing Municipality, November 21, 2013 Photo by IC

For much of November, the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee dominated news coverage within China. Official media frequently compared it to the Third Plenum of the 11th CPC Central Committee in 1978 when a historic decision to break with the past and launch the policy of Reform and Opening-up (by setting the wheels of China’s economic rise in motion) irreversibly changed the country’s future.

As China now faces a wide range of challenges both abroad and within its borders, hopes are high that China’s new leadership, after a year in power, is cautiously reform-oriented, with the Third Plenum serving as a “new starting point” for China’s progress.

Ambitious

After four days of closed-door meetings at  an undisclosed location, the Party released a short communiqué November 13. Though the lack of detail was a disappointment, a subsequent 22,000-word document known simply as “Decisions,” which detailed reforms approved at the meeting, showed that a more earnest reform agenda is finally gaining momentum.

Elaborating decisions concerning 60 issues in 15 fields including economics, politics, education, health, rural development, cultural development, the environment, and defense, the document mentions almost all major issues and controversies which have been under scrutiny in recent years.

For example, one landmark decision announced was the relaxation of the country’s unpopular One Child Policy. While stopping short of ending the policy, couples made up of at least one only child will now be permitted to have two children.

The Party also pledged to reform the widely-criticized household registration, or hukou, system, effectively an internal visa which currently limits a citizen’s right to work and reside to a certain geographical area, usually their birthplace. No details were forthcoming about what form hukou reforms might take.

Regarding the relationship between the State sector and the private sector in the economy, the Party pledged to allow market forces to play “a decisive role,” also mandating that the country’s powerful State-owned enterprises (SOEs) turn over 30 percent of their profits in tax, double the current amount.

In rural affairs, the Party promised to grant rural residents more “property rights,” and to establish rural property markets ensuring transparent and fair exchange of rural property. In the past years, rural property markets have been established in selected provinces. Earlier this year, Premier Li Keqiang emphasized the need to push forward urbanization to boost China’s economy.

With a wide-ranging economic and social reform program, the Party promises to achieve “decisive results” by 2020, though no detailed timeline was given. Analysts believe that such ambitious declarations within the first year of governance shows a sense of urgency among China’s new leadership, and collective understanding of the need to embark on big, bold and broad reforms before time runs out.

Stronger Central Power

General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is expected to lead China till 2022, issued a personal note explaining the need for the key reforms laid out in the documents – the first time a Party general secretary has personally explained decisions made by the Central Committee.

In his note, Xi also confirmed that he would lead a working group on the “comprehensive deepening of reform,” which would be responsible for “design, coordination, pushing forward and delivery.” Analysts remarked that this was tantamount to staking his political legitimacy on the success of the reform agenda.

In his explanatory note, Xi also explained the role of the National Security Commission, a key Party panel unveiled during the plenum. According to Xi, China is facing two pressures: “Internationally, the country needs to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests; domestically, political security and social stability should be ensured.”

“Establishing a national security commission to strengthen the unified leadership of State security is an urgent need,” Xi’s note continued. It is speculated that the National Security Commission will be China’s answer to both the NSA and the National Security Council in the US.

With Xi set to take charge of both these Party panels, skeptics warned that such a concentration of power in the hands of one man is risky for China’s precarious politics. Reform advocates have countered with claims that a strong central leadership is necessary to break political deadlock and overcome resistance from powerful vested interest groups blamed for holding the country back.

Many have attributed the stagnation of reform in the past to weak central leadership, whose decisions were said to be “powerless outside of Zhongnanhai” – the central government compound in the heart of Beijing and the official residence of the country’s top leaders.

“[Blame for] the stagnation of reform lies not in an absence of good policies and road maps, but in resistance to their implementation,” commented an editorial in the Beijing News, published on November 13. “Now, with a top-down mechanism, the trend in which discussion fails to result in decisions, decisions fail to be implemented and implementation fails to deliver results, can be reversed.”

Legal Reform

Much of the public support for a strong central leadership has stemmed from Xi and his team’s perceived ability to crack down on corruption in a campaign which has resulted in the fall of 11 ministerial-level officials and over 1,000 county-level officials since November 2012. Domestic observers believe that this not only boosts the popularity of the new leadership with the people, but also injects a much-needed sense of confidence into the public realm.

“Recent trends have shown that a pushback from special interests may not be so difficult to overcome,” commented Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen, researchers at the Brookings Institution in an article published on chinausfocus.com.

It is against this backdrop that the Party has launched various initiatives in the crucial fields of politics and law.

Following the conclusion of the Third Plenum, the Party stepped up its anti-corruption rhetoric by inserting supervisory teams from the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection into all central Party and government agencies.

In the meantime, rotating inspection mechanisms will be established at both central and provincial level to “cover all local governments and State-owned enterprises.”

To prevent local officials from influencing their local discipline inspection commissions, the central leadership also seeks to claw back powers to nominate and appoint local disciplinary officials from provincial Party committees.

This bolstering of central power has also been felt in the judiciary. Xi’s November 2012 pledges to “let everyone experience justice” and “respect the Chinese Constitution” led to high hopes of a full-scale overhaul of the country’s problem-ridden and Party-controlled judiciary. However, amidst high-pitched attacks on “constitutionalism” appearing in various State media and tightened controls on internet, Xi has found himself characterized as a political conservative, much to the chagrin of many early supporters.

Reform in the judiciary do, however, seem to be progressing. In the communiqué following its Third Plenum, the Party re-emphasized the importance of “respecting” the Chinese Constitution. “China’s constitution has the highest authority” and is “the fundamental guarantee of the prosperity of the Party and the state,” ran the document.

Moreover, the Party pledged to “safeguard human rights,” the first time even the concept of the existence of human rights has appeared in a high-level Party document.

In its Decisions, the Party announced it would abolish extra-judicial labor camps after a series of scandals were revealed earlier this year of the incarceration of innocent people without charge in these shadowy internment centers. Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu’s pledge to scrap the extra-legal system, officially known as “re-education through labor,” is expected to meet with stiff resistance from officials who have come to depend on such camps as a convenient way of removing dissenting voices from public life.

Along with the announcement to abolish labor camps, the Party also laid out major reforms aimed at promoting judicial independence and establishing rule of law. According to sources close to the leadership, relevant reforms will be primarily launched in five areas - Shaanxi, Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces as well as in Shanghai, to test the waters in some of China’s most developed and prosperous areas.

These reforms also aim to enhance central control of the courts, putting budget approval and judicial appointments under the auspices of provincial and central officials, rather than allowing these powers to remain in localized hands.

Having been allowed a glimpse of the new administration’s potential reform agenda, it falls to China’s hyperactive Internet and the media to pick apart what the future might hold for the nation and its citizenry. On one point, all seem to be in agreement – failure, it seems, is not an option.

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