Reform was on the agenda when the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party met Nov. 9–12 in Beijing at the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee. In the discussions of the 10-year blueprint for change that was put forward, and in the details of the communiqué issued later, there are reasons to doubt whether the Party has the means to realize its goals.
The introduction of the reform plan by Party head Xi Jinping was given a frosty reception. According to those familiar with events at the plenum, Xi’s reading of the Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (hereafter referred to as Decision) was followed by a heavy silence.
Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang had expected opposition. In preparation for the plenum, Xi traveled to southern China’s Hunan Province and Li to the far northeastern Heilongjiang Province to meet with provincial officials.
In Hunan, Xi had a double message. By telling the officials in advance the reform proposals, he hoped to avoid intense conflicts at the plenum itself. At the same time, he let the province’s top officials know that their duty was to “implement the spirit of the Third Plenum.”
Xi and Li’s lack of confidence in any broad-based support for their agenda could be seen in an unusual study session they organized at the Central Party School. Three hundred provincial level officials were required to memorize Xi’s speeches for the three days prior to the plenum. During the plenum they were kept at the school and not allowed to leave.
The closed-door meetings at the plenum consisted of four days of arguments, and Xi and Li waited about publicizing the Decision. Top officials feared further delay would do damage, and a communiqué was issued Friday, Nov. 15, three days after the meetings end.
Triangle of Power
The biggest winner at the Third Plenum was Wang Qishan. As head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, Wang has been busy implementing Xi’s crackdown on corruption. On his watch, dozens of officials have been subjected to the abusive Party interrogation called shuanggui.
Few people dared to challenge or confront Wang at the plenum. He seems to have established power and prestige in the Party, and he will hold down one corner of a new power structure inaugurated by the Decision.
The Decision created two new bodies, a State Security Committee, to be headed by Xi Jinping, and a Reform Leading Team, to be headed by Li Keqiang. The State Security Committee will have direct authority over everything but economic matters. The Reform Leading Team will handle China’s economy.
Together, the State Security Committee, the Reform Leading Team, and the Central Discipline Inspection Commission form a triangle that will run the regime. The key in the future for this new structure will be the three parts cooperating well together.
‘Routes Are Chaotic’
A member of the brain trust at one of the Beijing think tanks said of the Decision, “The targets are clear, but the routes are chaotic.”
For instance, Decision announced the abolition of re-education through labor—the vast system of labor camps used to detain criminals, dissidents, petitioners, and prisoners of conscience.
Security officials put people in labor camps using administrative detention—no trial or court ruling was required. Decision left open to security officials the continued use of administrative detention, with the detainees sent to other types of facilities, rather than labor camps.
A famous legal expert in Beijing noted that there is at least a legal limit of two years on a labor camp sentence. There are no limits on sentences to legal education centers—brainwashing centers established throughout China. Decision’s “reform” may prove more abusive than what it replaces.
Another example of the unfinished work of the Decision involves land reform.
There is no more contentious issue in China than land policy. Local governments confiscate land to avoid bankruptcy (and to fatten corrupt officials).
Displaced farmers and homeowners form an increasingly large group with bitter grievances—they are compensated very little, if at all, for the land or housing taken from them and may be left homeless.
At the same time, the plunge by local governments into real estate has created a bubble that threatens the entire Chinese economy.
Decision wants to give rural residents rights to their land, but difficult details have not been solved.
Rural land has collective ownership. What this means is not clear. Does the family or the individual have a share? In cities, all land belongs to the state and the “owner” simply has the right to use the land. Will rural “landowners” be selling usage rights? If so, for how long?
While these and other issues leave land reform unrealized, this is according to plan. A source familiar with the discussion about land reform said that Beijing’s final decision is “not to let details hinder overall planning.” The goal is to market rural land, and problems will be dealt with as they emerge, the source said.
Consensus and Authority
Shi Cangshan, a U.S.-based expert on Chinese politics, said the Third Plenum’s reforms are mostly technical adjustments that leave the system’s fundamental problems untouched.
According to Shi, two things are needed if the CCP is to attempt fundamental reform: consensus and authority.
Shi believes for Beijing to build consensus, it needs an extraordinary event, such as Deng Xiaoping’s negation of the Cultural Revolution.
In Chinese history, emperors begin by having the final say, but then the bureaucracy would decide. In the end the system has the final say, Shi said, and so true reform has to start with the system.