China's Third Party Plenum — a masterpiece of vagueness

Two paramilitary policemen guard behind a fire extinguisher at Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People, where the Communist Party's 205-member Central Committee gathered for its third annual plenum on November 12, 2013 in Beijing, China. The committee approved a decision on "major issues concerning comprehensively deepening reforms."
Credit: Feng Li

HONG KONG — If anyone claims they can tell you what really happened at the all-important meeting of China’s decision-makers that ended Tuesday, don’t believe them.

Even under ordinary circumstances, interpreting Chinese politics is notoriously difficult. The system is opaque and convoluted, with ritualized language, cookie-cutter leaders and lots of befuddling slogans — see “The Three Represents.”

But the communiqué released Tuesday evening after a four-day conclave of top Communist Party officials may be a high-water mark of mind-numbing vagueness.  

For months, experts have breathlessly speculated and debated that this meeting, the Third Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, would result in massively important, wide-ranging new policies. Everything from breaking up state-owned enterprises to abolishing the one-child policy seemed to be on the table.

Yet now that the agenda has been released — a 5,000-character document (3,500 words in English translation) — we are almost exactly where we started. The only concrete announcement was the creation of two committees, one overseeing national security, the other overseeing reform.

Beyond that, nobody knows where China is headed. Nobody knows if much-needed economic and political policies are progressing or stalling.

All we have is a masterpiece of vagueness that could be interpreted in multiple, contradictory ways.

For example, The New York Times read the communiqué as a victory for the market economy. Yet David Zweig, a China politics expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says the communiqué showed that the “the Party is not sacrificing the state sector to the god of the market.” The Telegraph said it showed Xi Jinping successfully consolidated his power. The Wall Street Journal, however, said it showed Xi Jinping had lost out to “technocrats.”

The communiqué, in other words, is like a Rorschach test, or cloud watching. You can project onto it whatever you want.

“All we’ve seen is the preface to a cookbook,” says Zweig. “What’s important is what gets listed and what doesn’t.”

At times, the lengthy document reads like a New Year’s resolution of all the big things China knows it really ought to do, but isn’t sure how to accomplish.

“The biggest surprise was the lack of specifics,” says Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. “[The communiqué has] too many issues, too broad a scope, and there are still not detailed plans, no priorities, no initial breakthroughs.”

The Hong Kong stock exchange agreed with this assessment and dropped to a two-month low on Wednesday.

Of course, as time goes on, it should become apparent what, if anything, was really decided at the Third Plenum. Maybe it will be looked back on as a revolutionary meeting, like Deng Xiaoping’s Third Plenum in 1978, when the vague words “reform and opening” kicked off an era of roaring growth.

In the meantime, you can try your hand at reading the Beijing tea leaves. Below we’ve highlighted some selections from the communiqué. Decide for yourself whether you believe China is headed toward a future of further liberal reform, or a doubling down on economic, political, and social controls. Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Text of the communiqué quoted from a full-text English translation by China Copyright and Media.

The Optimist’s Highlights

Passage: “The Plenum pointed out that we must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources… We must establish fair, open and transparent market rules, perfect mechanisms in which process are mainly decided by the market.”

Interpretation: The days of favoritism toward state-owned enterprises are over — free market reforms are on the way.

Passage: “We must accelerate the construction of new types of agricultural management systems, endow peasants with more property rights…”

Interpretation: Because the government owns all the land in China — literally all of it — farmers can easily be kicked off their plots so the land can be used for development. This is a huge source of unrest, and before the Plenum, experts speculated that Beijing would grant peasants some sort of ownership. This sentence might point to some future reform.

Passage: “The Plenum pointed out that to construct a rule of law country, we must deepen judicial structural reform, and accelerate the construction of a fair, high-efficiency and authoritative Socialist judicial system, safeguarding the people’s rights and interests. … [And] guarantee that judicial power and prosecutorial power is exercised according to the law, independently and fairly...”

Interpretation: It’s possible this means that China’s courts, which are strictly controlled by the Party, will gradually be allowed to make more independent rulings. That would be good news all around.

The Pessimist’s Highlights

Passage: “The most important matters are persisting in the leadership of the Party, implementing the Party’s basic line, not marching the old road of “closed-ness” and fossilization, not marching the evil road of changing banners and allegiances, persisting in marching the path of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Interpretation: Forget hopes of political reform. The Communist Party’s priority, above all, is to stay permanently in power.

Passage:  “The basic economic system with public ownership at the core, jointly developing with many kinds of ownership systems is the main pillar of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, and is the basis for the Socialist market economy system”

Interpretation: Rich vested interests tied to state-owned enterprises have won. The Party isn’t going to allow reforms that weaken or undermine these government-owned behemoths — however inefficient they may be.

Passage: “The Plenum pointed out that [we must] closely revolve around the objective of building a line of strong armies for this Party under new circumstances, people’s armies which listen to the Party’s instructions, can be victorious in battle and have a fine work style, strive to resolve prominent contradictions issues...”

Interpretation: In China, the army is loyal first of all not to the state, but to the Communist Party. This passage highlights how seriously Beijing is taking its territorial disputes with its neighbors, and shows a worrying emphasis on using military might to resolve “new circumstances” and “contradictions.” A blueprint for war?  

Related Stories