Since Party plenums are closed-door events with nothing emerging except what the leadership wants us to hear, we are still reduced to tea-leaf reading and old-school Zhongnanhai-ology. And although Xi Jinping has been praised for using more flowerly language and shows genuine emotion, the communique issued at the end of the 3rd Plenum of th 18th Party Congress is a bland document. This is the kind of thing you would introduce your students or family to if you wanted them to never be interested in Chinese politics and leave you alone.
I drank some strong coffee, pulled out my highlighter, and opened my dictionary. What did I find? A document that potentially heralds substantial reforms, but leaves a lot, perhaps too much, to the imagination.
Communiques from previous Party plenums that signaled major policy changes introduced new nouns to the ideological lexicon. The "commodity economy," "socialist market economy," etc. Perhaps the key word from yesterday's communique is "decisive," as in having "the market place the decisive role in resource allocation." That is not as big a change in direction as was ushered in at the 3rd Plenums of the 11th, 13th, or 14th Party Congresses. By focusing on an adjective and not a noun, the Party is now trying to clarify and sharpen the direction it wants China to go, not set a fundamental new course.
I say "perhaps the key word" because the summary provided by Xinhua at the end of the text did not focus on that point at all. It definitely is significant because it goes beyond previous statements of markets playing a "basic" role in allocating resources. But is it the most important thing in the document? No one can say for sure.
There were other significant elements.
On the positive side of the ledger:
1. It looks like we will see a lot of experiments and new national policies in a wide variety of areas, including general government administration, further price liberalization, central and local government finances and budgets, cadre assessment, property rights and land ownership, taxes, environmental protection, the judicial system, household registration, greater access to capital and industries for private and foreign industry, and ensuring competitive markets.
2. There was a clear sense on the need to nationalize and unify policies, including reducing inter-regional barriers and standardizing government administration across the country.
3. The word innovation was used several times, including with regard to science and technology, but the adjective "indigenous" (自主) never appeared. This continues Li Keqiang's pattern of never saying "indigenous innovation," in contrast to Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, and portends a more liberal approach to sci-tech policy.
4. There will be a creation of a national security council. It's unclear precisely what its job will be, but it could potentially operate like the US's NSC and help coordinate foreign and security policy across the ministries. This could help alleviate inconsistent signals and bickering we see between the PLA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MOFCOM, the PBOC, and other ministries.
5. There was no mention of border disputes, the South China Sea, the island dispute with Japan, or cybersecurity. Any emphasis on a threatening external environment could be used to justify greater defense spending or a more aggressive international posture. We did not see that.
On the negative or unclear side of the ledger:
1. There could have been more details about specific kinds of reforms. Instead, there were lots of hints -- and hints are often critical -- but the more detail would have provided less wiggle room to opponents.
2. There was a strong emphasis on the continued importance of the public, state-owned economy. Not only are SOEs important in "pillar" (支柱) sectors, but they are supposed to raise their overall competitiveness in the entire economy. That may be the politically safe thing to say, but it suggests genuine constraints on reforms in these sectors and walling off SOEs to standard rules regarding competition policy, market access, and financial markets. On the other hand, it is possible that this means SOEs will be pushed to be much more efficient, to hand over a much larger percentage of their earnings, to standardize their internal governance, and to compete more head-to-head with private and foreign companies. We just don't know, but the vagueness is not reassuring.
3. The creation of a Leading Small Group to Deepen Reform could be a way to get around the gridlock that exists in the standard policymaking process and the special interests within the Party, government, and SOEs that oppose change. This could help speed up adoption and make implementation go more smoothly. But its creation may also signal that there is significant opposition and making headway will be quite difficult.
4. Aside from emphasizing the need for judicial reform and genuflections toward democracy, human rights, and other standard elements of the constitution, there was very little new that would give one confidence the Party is willing to accept systematic constraints on its authority, either rules governing how it operates or ways it and the government can be held accountable. For those who think greater political space is needed for markets to work well and for state-society relations to be genuinely stable, this document does not openly provide a lot of hope.
5. There was no mention of family planning policy despite signals it would be an important reform. Just the day before the state press ran stories to this effect. We will need to wait to see if the one-child policy is adapted further into an essentially two-child policy.