With a little attention one will find that the general public is quite optimistic after the 3rd Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee. Public sentiment indicates that most people basically approve of the five-in-one reform approach put forward by the CPC Central Committee. It suggests that the Chinese ruling party’s commitment to reforms in the political, economic, cultural, social and environmental fields is aligned with the people’s desire for higher living standards. On the other hand, it also affirms the strong doubts and criticisms coming from Chinese society that have been caused by increasing conflicts and problems in the five autonomous regions. Therefore, launching reforms in these five regions is naturally rather popular. Furthermore, the meeting explicitly gave equal importance to the campaign against government corruption and public servants and the five major reforms, which positively affects public opinion.
But what has interested me most is not the general public’s opinion after the high-level CPC meeting, but rather the fact that many public intellectuals, some pioneering economists and many white-collar middle class in particular, have shown an optimism that has been rare in recent years. And I wonder why that is.
The average person’s optimism with the “new” Third Plenum can be attributed to them seeing a connection between future reforms and their own interests. What makes Chinese intellectuals happy is the fact that debates about reforms are drawing attention of the ruling party’s top leaders, who seem to have made fairly correct judgments. In fact, these rather theoretical debates have a bearing on whether China will continue with its opening-up policy. In other words, China has reached a historical critical point in its reform and opening up. Will it create an upgraded version of social development or hesitate in front of difficulties until the achievements of the past three decades are exhausted? The CPC, the ruling party, must give clear answers to these questions. Those Chinese intellectuals and economists who strongly support market reforms are cautiously optimistic because they have seen the ruling party’s answer in the Communique published after the session, which relieves them and gives them hope.
To be more specific, the meeting has given clear-cut answers to the following contentious questions. It first confirms that future reforms will not only focus on the economy and that a holistic strategy will be adopted to achieve major changes. The CPC Central Committee has stressed that economic, political, cultural, social and ecological reforms must be systematic. The decision to set up a steering agency at the central government to guide deepened reforms highlights the holistic and coordinated feature of this strategy. It seems that this approach can be attributed to President Xi Jinping’s military experience, which gave him familiarity with operational coordination and joint services exercises.
The CPC Central Committee also further clarified the objective of political reform as modernizing governance structure and capacity. This objective seems to have multiple meanings and needs further authoritative interpretation. However, today this expression presents new, unprecedented demands on the Chinese government by describing existing governance capacity as less than desirable. The call to modernize governance structure has also gone beyond the old, narrow understanding of political reform as only the decentralization of administration. Establishment of the National Security Council should be seen in this context.
All of the above has been well received in Chinese society and has led to optimism amongst the middle class and intellectuals. But I don’t think they are the core reason. The most fundamental and enlightening sentence in the Communique petitions us to “let the market play a decisive role in allocation of resources”. Before the 3rd Plenum, the role of the market in resource allocation was described as “basic”, which is now set as “decisive”. People familiar with Chinese politics and political jargon know well that there may be a world of difference between one word and another. The likelihood of a word changing the nation’s destiny is not an illusion in China today, but rather a tangible reality. Debates over role of the market have accompanied the whole Chinese reform process. It may seem easy to claim a decisive role for the market in resource allocation. More importantly, it truthfully and accurately reflects the Chinese decision-makers’ basic ideas about the urgent need to upgrade industry, transform the economy and re-position the government. Such a description summarizes the achievements and lessons in socio-economic development learned over the past thirty-five years, and lay down the datum point for all economic reforms in the coming decade.
Qin Xiaoying is a Research Scholar with China Foundation For International and Stategic Studies.