The Great Hall of the People where the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee will be held from November 9-12. Photo: CFP
This November, all eyes are on China's Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, a meeting that begins on Saturday and is seen as a landmark event that will provide clues to the country's future policy direction.
Prompted by widespread expectations, Chinese leaders have repeatedly made public statements about their determination and commitment to reforms.
"This plenary meeting will focus on deepening reforms all around," said Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, at a forum last month. "This round of reform will be unprecedented in terms of its scope and intensity."
Yu's remarks followed President Xi Jinping's comment at a meeting with Tsinghua University advisors in late October, saying "comprehensive reforms" would be planned out during the Third Plenum, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
The meeting has attracted great attention within China and abroad, prompting speculation on how far reforms can go.
Testing the waters
The reason why the meeting is so important is that the CPC has had a tradition of proposing key changes in third plenary sessions since 1978, when former leader Deng Xiaoping decided to implement reforms to open up and loosen State control over the economy during the third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee. Then in 1993, the third plenum of the 14th CPC Central Committee endorsed the socialist market economy, paving the way for China's economic takeoff in the subsequent two decades.
This year, some 200 influential policy-makers will gather to discuss the future direction of China's economy from November 9 to 12 during the meeting.
With no details of specific reforms, the public can only look for clues through leaders' remarks and media reports. So when a detailed proposal known as Plan 383 was released by the Research and Development Centre of the State Council, an influential government think tank, right ahead of the meeting, it fueled the public's expectations and prompted even more speculation.
The proposal listed "three key concepts," "eight areas of reform" and "three correlated reform combinations" on subjects including administrative supervision, anti-corruption efforts, monopolies by State-owned companies and land reforms.
The proposal was given credibility because one of its lead authors, Liu He, is a key adviser to President Xi Jinping. The decision to release the report was seen as a test of the public's reaction to the reforms.
Many see the proposal as having value as a reference. "It is a wish list, not a to-do list," London-based economist Wang Qinwei points out.
Jiang Yong, a researcher at the Center of National Strategic Studies, commented that the 383 plan may have had an influence on the market, but its impact on the political system remains unclear.
Wang told the China Economic Review that he expects the final report issued at the end of the plenum to be "less ambitious" than the proposal.
The difficulties involved in turning this wish list into policy lies in the political system, said He Jun, senior researcher of think tank Beijing Anbound Consulting company, adding that reformers and conservatives are still engaged in the bargaining process. Therefore, some reforms, on issues such as monopolies and land use rights, are difficult to push forward under the current system because they will eventually be pushed back by entrenched institutional interests.
"The harder they push the limits, the further the reforms can go," He said.
"The fundamental political theory in China is to ensure that the 'Party leads the people in effectively governing the country,'" Sima Nan, a renowned Maoist scholar, said in an interview with London-based Chinese Weekly. "All the decisions that this Third Plenary Session will make are based on this theory."
Wu Jinglian, one of the country's best-known economists, emphasized the importance of political reform ahead of the 18th Party Congress last year, saying, "Political reform and economic reform should be interdependent and coordinated. If we seek economic reforms but do not seek political reforms, then economic reforms will not work out."
He Jun suggests political reform should be carried out cautiously. "If the outcome of reforms results in turmoil, then it is the people who suffer the most," He said.
In fact, what the Party has in mind regarding political reform is different from what overseas observers predict, such as a multi-party system or Western style democracy.
Observers found that all the proposed policy changes concerning politics are aimed at the administrative level, and rarely touch the fundamental political system.
"The reform will be implemented under the leadership of the Party," He said.
From the 11th CPC Central Committee to the 17th, the market reform moved forward gradually, which shows a traditional characteristic and is inherited from Chinese culture, said Jiang.
"The transition from one meeting to another has always been smooth, therefore I don't think there will be any self-inflicted setbacks this time," Jiang said.
The public also has its own "wish list." A recent poll showed that 83 percent of some 7,000 respondents saw the transformation of government functions as a priority, followed by 78 percent who wanted the income gap to be narrowed, 76 percent who called for monopolies to be broken, and 75 percent wanting the household registration system to be reformed, according to the People's Tribune, a magazine affiliated to the People's Daily.
Lei Chuang, a 26-year-old graduate student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, submitted requests to over 50 central government departments last year, requesting that they release details of the annual salaries of high-level officials.
Even though none of his requests were met, he was hailed by netizens as a "model of an active and critical citizen." In September, he and his father spent three months walking from Shanghai to Beijing to petition for lower prices of drugs for hepatitis B virus carriers.
"I hope the government can take the public's concerns into consideration," Lei told the Global Times.
Many experts have called for greater public participation in the reform process. Qiu Xiaohua, a Chinese economist who previously ran the National Bureau of Statistics, suggests that more channels should be opened for policy-makers to listen to the public.
"When it comes to making policy, the government should open its doors and listen to what its people have to say. They may be able to provide a grass-roots version of reform," Qiu told the Global Times.
Xiong Wenzhao, a professor at the Law School of Minzu University of China, told the Global Times that there are not enough channels for people to voice their concerns, but in the long term, the public should be invited into the decision-making process.
"Policy-makers can't just sit in their offices and think they know what people are really concerned about," Xiong said. "At the end of the day, public participation will help to push the reform forward."
Necessity of political reforms
Professor Zhu Lijia, director of Public Administration Studies at the Chinese Academy of Governance, suggests that political reform should come first.
Cao Heping, professor at the School of Economics at Peking University, told the Global Times that China should transform government functions to loosen its control on the market.
In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, Wei Sen, a professor of economics at Fudan University, argues that without political reform, economic reform cannot go forward.
Wei argues that China has reached a critical point at which all economic reforms lead to a change of political policies.
Jiang said the upcoming plenum cannot be compared to the 11th CPC Central Committee, as the political landscape has changed a great deal in the past three decades.
"Today's interest groups are quite different from the past. It is harder to reach a consensus now," Jiang told the Global Times.
Jiang also suggests that the public lower its expectations.
"If you tell people tonight we are going to have a big banquet, they would be very disappointed to find out it is just a buffet," Jiang said.
Many political observers admit it's more realistic not to ignore the existent institutionalized system.
According to He Jun, a feasible expectation for the upcoming sessions is that people from all sides strive to reach a consensus under the current political system.
Historically important Third Plenary Sessions
11th CPC Central Committee, 1978
This meeting re-evaluated Mao Zedong and other State and Party leaders. A landmark in China's history, it lifted the curtain on the period of reform and opening-up.
14th CPC Central Committee, 1992
This meeting passed the Decision on Issues of Building a Socialist Market Economy. Under such a system, the market plays a fundamental role in resource allocation within the context of State macro-adjustment and control.
18th CPC Central Committee, 2013
As the economy has already been highly marketized, political reforms and social justice are anticipated. A recent poll conduced by People's Tribune showed that transforming government functions, narrowing the income gap, breaking monopolies, reforming the household registration system, the land system and the financial system are the top six areas the public want the government to address.