The highly anticipated Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee was held in Beijing on November 9-12. The Chinese leadership had sent strong signals that this Third Plenum would be comparable to the famed Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee in December 1978, which adopted reform and opening and profoundly changed China. Liberals wished for but knew they would not get any genuine political reform, but there was still hope that at least some serious economic reform measures could be adopted. In the background was the question of whether the overall thrust of the plenum would add some aura of dynamism and inspiration to Xi Jinping’s vision of the “China Dream,” reminiscent of the impact of the plenum 35 years earlier.
Reducing the power of the state-owned enterprises would increase the efficiency of the economy and also give freer rein to social forces. Meaningful reform in land ownership, the hukou system, the one-child policy, and labor education could not only deepen reform, but also invigorate society. Even if one could not expect a lot of detail from the pronouncements of the plenum, the leadership could provide a blueprint for the coming few years, at least, a broad policy outline with significance for implementation and for the vision the leadership holds for China’s future.
As indication of Xi Jinping’s success in enforcing party discipline, few stories were leaked about what was happening behind closed doors. The main materials for speculation were a series of editorials and accompanying viewpoints by the People’s Daily, which really did not give away much. On November 12, the meeting communique hit the press. With few fresh ideas the communique was underwhelming. However, the communique stated that a decision had been taken on “major issues concerning comprehensively deepening reforms” on the last day of the plenum. That decision was revealed to the public on November 15, sooner than the previous plenums. The document includes 60 points of reform measures, as comprehensive as promised. Notable items were abolishment of the infamous “reeducation through labor” system, further relaxation of the one-child family planning policy, fiscal reform, and permission for farmers to receive residential registration in small cities. If implemented as intended, these reform measures should indeed help the country make economic and social progress.
The “China Dream” was, indeed, an important theme for the plenum. It was discussed more prominently in the lead-up to the meeting. The members of the Politburo Standing Committee invoked it. Xi highlighted the theme on several occasions, for example, to the returned exchange students on October 21. The Third Plenum communique highlighted the “China Dream” as the goal for the party and the nation at the start and end of the document. The longer decision document similarly highlighted the “China Dream” as well as several other theoretical notions from Xi. The standing of the slogan is apparently as strong as that of its advocate.
Apart from concrete policies, the plenum announced creation of a State Security Committee and a leading team for deeper reform. The subsequent analysis in the Chinese media suggests that the new State Security Committee would coordinate responses to security threats from inside and outside the country and is most likely to be led by Xi.1 There has also been much speculation about the new leading team for deeper reform, but hints point to a powerful economic decision-making organ within the party center, probably headed by Xi also.2 If Xi indeed takes charge of both new commanding organs, he would add these to the three posts he already has, namely the CCP general secretary, the state president, and the chairman of the Central Committee Military Affairs Committee. And one hears speculation about personnel decisions to be announced after the plenum that appear to allow Xi to put his supporters in important positions.
Charging out of the gate upon assuming the party general secretary position a year earlier, Xi has already acquired more formal power than his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. While paying due respect to Jiang and Hu in the communique, Xi is acting in a way similar to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The real questions are what Xi is going to do with his power and whether the establishment and society will respond positively to his policy choice and leadership style. In this elevated role, he has an opportunity to define the “China Dream,” much as Mao defined socialism and Deng defined “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The just-completed plenum put much rhetorical emphasis on reform. It is conceivable that Xi wants greater power to carry out difficult economic reforms. He was quoted as talking about overcoming the resistance to further reform by sectoral interests, which also hinted at difficulties he must have encountered at the closed-door meeting.3 At the same time, discussion of serious economic reform could also be viewed as a means to enhance Xi’s own political authority and realize his own political ambition. As is often the case, greater political power tends to corrupt the political leader who would have difficulty differentiating his/her own political interest from the interests of the country as a whole.
I have just discussed what has happened at the “very top” of the Chinese system. What the leaders of a country say and do has a disproportionate impact on that country’s domestic politics and foreign policy. At the same time, how that country’s citizens think and act ultimately shapes its destiny. On October 18, Xia Yeliang, an economics professor from the School of Economics of Peking University, was fired. The faculty of the school voted 30-3 with one abstaining to end Xia’s contract. There had been much anticipation that Xi would be fired for his pro-democracy political views and some foreign institutions of higher education such as Wellesley College had begun appealing to Peking University to uphold academic freedom. There is insufficient information for judging whether Xia was expelled for political reasons or for a poor teaching record, as the school administration claimed, but Xia’s dismissal has taken place in a larger context of tightening control over the print media, the social media, and the academy in China. Innovation that the government talks about constantly requires academic freedom. Given suspicions that the “China Dream” is essentially a vision of an authoritarian state without restrictions, such as appeals to academic freedom or from civil society, such cases shape the image of China too.
On October 20, Wang Gongquan, a well-known and successful business entrepreneur, was arrested. Wang joined the New Citizens Movement, a group that promotes civil society, a rules-based government, and good governance. The group publicly pushed for government officials to disclose their assets in March. Almost two dozen members have been arrested or detained since then. One may wonder what is wrong with asking officials to disclose their assets. Is the party leadership not also striking down hard on official corruption? The answer lies in the leadership’s deep fear of any organized movements to threaten its political monopoly. Wang was charged for “disturbing public order with a gathering of people.” The party center insists on controlling everything, including cleaning up itself. No wonder the anti-corruption campaigns waged by the party have always been superficial, selective against rivals, and, ironically, leading ultimately to worse corruption.
The mounting number of cases such as those involving Xia and Wang contribute to the weakening of China’s soft power, which is weak to start with. China was scheduled for a four-year review before the UN Human Rights Council on October 22. A spokeswoman commented that China would only accept “constructive criticism” from the UN review.4 Xia and Wang are at the pinnacle of their professions and on the radar of the international media. If they found themselves in such serious trouble, one can infer the situation of the “ordinary” Chinese citizens who seek to widen the scope of civil society in one manner or another. One wonders if a narrow “China Dream” centered on national power or glory can long prevail if materialism for the masses is not matched by an individualist vision and the dream of China as a civil society. We need to look for more evidence on whether citizens are losing trust in the leadership’s message and whether a large country, growing more complex through its rapid transformation, is still amenable to the decision-making at staged, closed-door leadership gatherings, such as the one just convened.
If the reform impact of the decisions made at this Third Plenum is to allow more room for social forces to avoid the heavy hand of the government, then we may see a widening gap between the thrust of the “China Dream” as a unified society under the Communist Party striving for the rejuvenation of national glory, and the aspirations of a diverse society seeking more space to pursue its evolving interests. Economic and social reforms are so far not accompanied by a vision for national identity other than this formulation of the leadership’s dream.
1. Xinjingbao, November 14, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/11-14/5499845.shtml (accessed November 13, 2013).
2. Xinjingbao, November 14, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/11-14/5499848.shtml (accessed November 13, 2013).
3. Zhejiang ribao, November 13, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/11-13/5497921.shtml (accessed November 13, 2013).
4. Simon Denyer, “China Formally Arrests Activist,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2013, A6.