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