Press Review: the “Magic” of Third Plenary Sessions

The Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee’s third plenary session is scheduled to begin on Saturday, and to close on Tuesday. The Economist is full of joy and great expectations:

When colleagues complain that meetings achieve nothing, silence them with eight leaden words: “third plenary session of the 11th central committee”. This five-day Communist Party gathering in December 1978 utterly changed China.

Why should Xi Jinping be in a position to repeat a similar plenum tomorrow, 35 years after the 1th Central Committee? Because Xi, and chief state councillor Li Keqiang, have assembled an impressive bunch of market-oriented advisers, and because Xi himself appears to have more authority than any leader since Deng. And he had done nothing downplay expecations.

press review

The outland expects nothing short of a (counter) revolution.

The Economist’s editorial mentions two fields on which the central committee – in its view – should focus: state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the countryside. The magazine has been banging on about the latter issue since March 2006 – if not earlier. In its March 25, 2006 edition, it suggested land reform (“how to make China even richer”), and it saw some of its expectations met in winter 2008, but the third plenum that Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao chaired in October 2008 proved an anticlimax.

If the next days should not produce spectacular decisions, neither the Economist nor the Financial Times appear to be too worried: bloated phrasing, the FT suggests, has not been an obstacle to far-reaching economic policy changes in China over the past 35 years. The FT also agrees with the Economist’s 2008 finding that

for Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessor, the 2003 third plenum became a marker of his administration’s shortcomings. Mr Hu vowed at the plenum to tackle China’s unbalanced growth, but a decade later left office with the economy even more reliant on investment.

But contrary to the Economist, the FT doesn’t seem to believe that the input from the market-oriented advisers, assembled by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, will translate into results quite as dramatic as the think-tank papers. Incremental change would prevail.

One of the ideas – certainly not shared by all Chinese leaders alike – behind the right to farmers to sell their land is that the money earned from sales would enable them to start new lives in the cities or in urbanized areas. This would, apparently, require loosening or abandoning the household-registration system, even if some more conservative models of trading land-related rights rather seem to encourage rural citizens to stay where they are.

This should make sense – maybe not everywhere, but in many places. After all, Hu Jintao’s and Wen Jiabao’s caution wasn’t unfounded. The history of Chinese agriculture seems to have been about making farmers owners of their land – with concepts of ownership which most probably differ from our days -, even if for different goals. The idea then was to make agriculture work, not to make urbanization work. And time and again, land concentrated, back into the hands of small elites, Erling von Mende, a sinologist, suggested in a contribution for a popular-science illustrated book published by Roger Goepper, in 1988.*)

If a peasant in Gansu province sells his few mu of land – to a local developer, for example – and heads to a big city, one may doubt that his small capital would get him very far. He might return to his home province as a poorer man than ever before. It’s unlikely that the center would loosen all the brakes at once.

The most striking thing to me about recent foreign coverage of the plenary session aren’t the technicalities, however. It is the way China is being looked at as just another kind of political system. The potential of big business seems to have squashed ethical issues.

That’s not soft power, but it is Beijing power. A number of former foreign officials, among them Mexico’s former president Ernesto Zedillo and former British prime minister Gordon Brown, pilgrimaged to the Chinese capital to attend a conference of the 21st Century Council, a global think tank (apparently formed by them). They got an invitation for tea met with Xi Jinping, too, who informed them that China would not fall into the middle-income trap.

There is no reason to believe that elites who worship abusive power abroad will show more respect for human rights at home.

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Note

*) Roger Goepper (Hrsg.): “Das Alte China”, München, Gütersloh, 1988, pp. 164 – 166

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Related

» Is China misunderstood, Oct 24, 2012
» Middle-income trap, Wikipedia, acc. 20131108

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5 Responses to “Press Review: the “Magic” of Third Plenary Sessions”

  1. Soft editorial note: banging on about.

    Western punditry. What a time worn joke!

    The final manifesto will be crafted to within an inch of its life: all participants will see their views take life and grow policy implementation legs.

    Then, as you note, the provinces will create their own ‘same old’ consensus.

    Water management/conservation is the pre eminent issue for contemporary China.

    If I hear about another so-called think tank, I will collect all the computers in tubbyland and consign them to a bonfire.

    Once all the Western takes on this non-event have been submitted to their respective editors, it will be back to CP political business as usual.

    When and if socio-economic change takes place in China, it will NOT be due to events/policy prescriptions such as this piece of choreagraphy.

  2. Central committee plenary sessions do produce stuff once in a while, to be fair. Pre-prepared stuff, of course. But that numbers game (the third plenum…) is a lot of hot air, fanned by the propaganda department and its useful idiots from barbarian shores.

    Thanks for the editorial note!

  3. It’s never closed, unless there’s a revolution. :-)

    And as I haven’t taken the trouble to translate the 5,000 characters myself, I can’t tell if it really means nothing or if it means only little. But my rough guess would be that in terms of the market and the state, Li Keqiang’s massage of ganbu conscience ahead of the plenum was no less indicative than the central committee document, and for the rest, it will mostly be international and domestic security.

    Wrote about the latter in German today, and may get round to it in English tomorrow or during the weekend.

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