For lovers of clear, concise language, Chinese politics are a nightmare. First, there is the name of the country's highest governing body: the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee. Then, there are the names of political meetings, the most recent of which was the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Party Congress. And finally there are the empty slogans; in the communique released just after the Third Plenum's conclusion last week, China's leaders promised to "comprehensively deepen reforms."
If this language seems vague and boring, well, that's the point: Chinese politics are designed to attract as little attention as possible. But in the week since the Third Plenum's conclusion, the event has already earned a reputation as China's most important political gathering in many years. From a policy perspective, the changes announced in the 60-page "decision" last Friday mark the strongest commitment to social, legal, and economic reform than we've seen in years, largely delivering on Yu Zhengsheng's (China's 4th ranking official) promise that the changes would be "unprecedented."
Right now, these reforms merely exist on paper. There's then the question of implementation, which, in China's multi-layered system of government where local officials face different incentives than national ones, is never a given. Finally, and most importantly, there's the question of whether these reforms will have their intended effect on the country's society and economy.
But beyond policy reform, the legacy of the Third Plenum may have more to do with politics than with policy. Xi Jinping, China's newish president, demonstrated that he was firmly in charge, forming two new government bodies to streamline national security and economic policy. Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, who took years to consolidate his control of China's government, Xi appears to have managed this trick in his first year in office, giving a sense that the Third Plenum may just be a prelude to bolder reforms down the road.
What are the key takeaways from the Plenum:
The One-Child Policy Is on Its Way Out
In 1979, when the Chinese government announced its "family planning policy" restricting families to just one child, a huge and booming population appeared to be China's biggest demographic problem, and the chief impediment to the Communist Party's goals to strengthen the country's economy.
Enforcement of the one-child policy has also led to egregious human rights abuses, as women, especially in rural areas, found themselves subject to forced sterilization from quota-seeking local officials. Sex-selective abortion, undertaken due to the traditional Chinese preference for male offspring, has created a gender imbalance so severe that Chinese leaders have openly worried that the country's excess young men may be unable to find marriage partners.
Given the scale of these problems, the Third Plenum's reforms are modest in scope; now, only families in which one or both parents were themselves only-children will be permitted to have a second child. And even then, parents who wish to have a second child will have to petition their provincial government, who have been given significant leeway in implementation. These administrative hurdles will dilute the actual effect of the reform which, given the damage done to China by the policy, are probably too late anyway.
But nevertheless, millions of Chinese families have now gained slightly more freedom in planning the size of their family, a fundamental human right long denied them.
"The Rule of Law" Takes a Baby Step Forward
The Third Plenum decision also announced the abolition of the laojiao, a system in which suspected criminals are sentenced without trial to "reform through labor" for an unspecified duration of time. The laojiao, a holdover from the Maoist era, attracted controversy over the years and had become something of an anachronism in modern China. However, its abolition doesn't mean that labor camps will disappear in China; instead, those sentenced to them will have gone through proper legal channels. Likewise, the Plenary announced an intention to reduce China's ghastly number of judicial executions, which fell from an estimated 12,000 in 2002 to 3,000 last year.
The Economic Transition Begins
In 2007, in a moment of candor, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called the Chinese economy "unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable." What he meant was this: The country's growth model relied too heavily on exports (which can fluctuate along with the global economy) and investment (which face diminishing returns over time) and not enough on consumption growth, a crucial component to stability.
Since the beginning of the economic reform period in 1978, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese have migrated to the country's cities to seek work in the bustling urban economy. But because their hukou—an internal passport that limits education and health benefits to a citizen's area of birth—ties them to the countryside, these migrant workers remain outside China's formal economy, unable to obtain social services that would enable them to settle permanently in the cities. In addition to a human rights concern, this problem has exacerbated economic inequality, a phenomenon that, if left untreated, threatens China's social stability.
Beijing has made noises about hukou reform for years. But with the Third Plenum, it will now be easier for rural workers to obtain benefits in smaller cities (though, notably, not in tier-one metropolises like Beijing). No, this isn't much—and a far cry from what needs to be done. But if this reform succeeds, Beijing may be persuaded to extend these reforms to cities like Beijing and Shanghai, a move that would further erode artificial divisions between China's urban and rural populations.
The plenum also addressed another key concern of the Chinese economy: the prevalence of state-owned enterprises, which receive an estimated 85 percent of bank loans in the country. Now, state-owned companies must allow private investors to take a small equity stake (up to 15 percent), while handing over a greater percentage of their profits to fund social welfare programs. Again, these reforms are modest, but they do signal Beijing's willingness to tackle this problem is a clear sign of its economic priorities.
The Rise of Xi Jinping
When Hu Jintao became China's top leader in 2002, he inherited two of China's three top offices: chairmanship of the Communist Party and presidency of the People's Republic. But it wasn't until 2004 that Hu was able to wrest the third title, chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. By contrast, Xi Jinping took control of all three positions at once last year, indicating that he, at the onset, was already in stronger position than his predecessor.
Now with the Third Plenum, the first under Xi's sole leadership, the president's position appears even stronger. The communique issued immediately after the plenum's conclusion announced the formation of two new administrative bodies, one focused on national security and one on economic policy, that will report directly to the president. Some, like the former Mexican ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo, have dismissed these groups as a token administrative change, and point out that their actual use as a policy driver remains to be seen. But they do represent an attempt by Xi to streamline the traditional decision-making processes within China's upper leadership, a move that may, if nothing else, reduce the friction and gridlock in China's government.
In a way, Xi's emergence is unsurprising. As a member of the "princeling" faction, Xi has been in and around power for a long time; his father, Xi Zhongxun, was an important Communist Party official during the Maoist era. He also, in his personal style, differs from the wooden Hu Jintao, and Xi's wife Peng Liyuan—a famous singer—is China's most high-profile First Lady in decades.
His accomplishments in office remain modest but Xi, who will presumably be president for nine more years, is poised to put a much greater personal stamp on Chinese politics than his predecessor. Hu Jintao came across as a functionary—an "empty Mao suit," in the words of the columnist Nicholas Kristof. But Xi's ambitions are grander. "He wants to be Putin," the political commentator Rong Jian told The New York Times' Chris Buckley. Whether he achieves this goal—China hasn't had a political figure of Putin's power since, arguably, Deng Xiapoing—Xi's strong first year creates a strong possibility that bolder reforms are forthcoming.
In practical terms, what do the results of the Third Plenum mean for China's future? In the short term, probably very little—the reforms are, by design, not intended to be destabilizing. But they do give us a glimpse of what lies ahead for the country: centralized politics, market liberalization, a strengthened judicial system, and, as the recent experience with journalist expulsions go, greater information control. Though no comparison of this sort is ultimately very useful, it's clear that China sees its future more as a giant version of Singapore, not as a mainland version of Taiwan.
In any case, the execution of this vision will depend in large part on the leadership choices of leaders like Xi, who still must navigate through China's complex elite politics in order to implement his vision. His success in doing so will, dull nomenclature or not, determine whether Chinese politics becomes much more important going forward.