What is a Party plenum?
It is a high-level meeting of the broad leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. In attendance are the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of Chinese power, currently seven strong, plus the some 200 members of the Central Committee, which is the level of power one rung below the Politburo. Committee members will also be the occupants of the most important state and government positions.
How often are plenums held?
Typically for four days every year in October during a Politburo’s five-year cycle, though they tend to be front loaded, which effects the timing. The current Politburo took over in November 2012, when its first plenum elected the key Party leaders; Xi Jinping was named as Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission then. He and Li Keqiang were appointed to the lesser state posts of president and prime minister at the second plenum in February this year.
What is significant of third plenums?
These are the big policy setting meetings for a Politburo’s term. Deng Xiaoping announced China’s opening to the world at a third plenum in 1978 and Zhu Rongji introduced the idea of a socialist market economy at a third plenum in 1993 — as state media have been reminding their audiences incessantly. That is setting up this one to be of the same scale of importance. Xi and Li are expected to advance a sweeping proposal for economic reform to rebalance the economy, starting with financial markets reform and boosting the private sector.
Anything to be read into a November rather than October date for this third plenum?
Nothing beyond the complexity of preparing a reform package on the scale being mooted, squaring away vested interests, and the need to consult more widely than usual on how to implement it as the reforms will touch on such widely disparate areas of the economy.
How detailed will be the action plan coming out of the plenum?
The plenum sets Party policy. The government then has to come up with the detailed policies and priorities that puts the broad strategy into practice. That is somewhat similar to the five-year plans. It is also a somewhat deductive process. The plenum is unlikely to produce either a blueprint for reform or a timeline. It more sets the overall direction and indicates what broad reforms have had political sign-off.
What are the key signposts to that direction?
- Get the private sector out from under the shadow of the big state-owned enterprises;
- Accelerate financial reform, particularly interest-rate liberalization, regulation of shadow banking, and greater internationalization of the currency;
- Open up hitherto largely protected sectors such as energy, finance and telecoms to more international investment in order to improve their innovation and international competitiveness.
- Lessen market distorting subsidies for power and other resources;
- Reform local government financing to make it less dependent on land sales, and the corruption-plagued market distorting investment they encourage;
- Relax the hukou system of household registrations to support the policy of urbanization, which is seen as critical to rebalancing the economy towards domestic consumption.
These are all interconnected. For example, reform of local government finance will mean developing a municipal-bond market which will require financial-markets and foreign-exchange reforms to be fully effective.
Any chance of political reforms.
No. The new leadership is making a point of positioning its reforms as a continuation of those of its predecessors. Even though political reform seems to many to be the inevitable consequence of the economic reform path China is taking, the Party is kicking dealing with that day as far down the road as it can. Xi has been talking of the Chinese dream as an echo of the American Dream and creating a moderately prosperous society. All is being kept within an economic frame of creating a better standard of living for Chinese. That is the premise the Party’s claim to a monopoly on political power rests.
Where are the points of resistance to economic reform?
Xi has interwoven his anti-corruption campaign and strictures against official extravagance with his message of the need for deep economic reforms. That has mostly gone down well with the broad public and put local and provincial officials and some in the big state owned enterprises who could be expected to be resistant to change on the defensive. That is not to say there doesn’t remain substantial pockets of resistance to change from those who would potentially lose out. The leadership is hammering a message of both the necessity and inevitably of reform. At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian Li said, “China is now at such a crucial stage that without structural transformation and upgrading, we will not be able to sustain economic growth.”
How quickly will reform happen?
Some big (and profitable) state owned industries and provinces and municipalities are powerful commercial players now in their own right. They have the potential to be roadblocks to reform. Xi recognizes the risks of reforming them from the top down so seems to be pushing changes from the bottom up and side in that will require them to adapt to a new economic environment, but to be able to prosper by doing so. The internationalization of the yuan is an example of that process at work. But it also an example of how Xi’s approach will take many years of incremental change to take effect. But that might prove more effective in the long-term than hammering through change using political clout.
Who are now the key figures in pushing reform?
Xi and Li, who as prime minister is in charge of the economy, are the political prime movers. There has been a consensus among the very highest levels of the leadership for some years that China’s economy will need to move in the direction being advocated. Xi and Li would not have been able to assume the leadership had that not been the case. Among the key technocrats backing them up are central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, long-time proponent of reform, and Liu He, the new deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission. Liu was a central figure behind the publication of the report the World Bank issued last year calling for the reform of state-owned monopolies and warning of China’s risk of being caught in the ‘middle income’ trap which would leave it unable to make a Japan and South Korea-like transition to being a developed economy. Liu has drafted the economic reform speech Xi give at the Plenum.