Considering the Third Plenum

Anticipation and the ‘383 Scheme’
Though the official opening date of the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China was not officially announced till the end of October, rumours about and expectations of the meeting and possible reforms that would be announced started much earlier. On 6 October, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled ‘Meet Liu He, Xi Jinping’s Choice to Fix a Faltering Chinese Economy‘. This piece was circulated on the Chinese Internet, and brought Liu He 刘鹤 into the limelight. Liu is the deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission 國家發改委.

On 26 October,, the website of China News Service, the second largest state-owned news agency, published an article: ‘Official think tank drafts ‘roadmap’ of China’s reforms’ (官方高层智库勾勒中国改革“路线图”). The piece introduces the ‘383 scheme’ 383方案 which was co-authored by Liu He. According to the article, the Scheme contained ‘the reform trinity – the market, government and corporations; eight key sectors and three breakthroughs’ (三位一体改革思路、八个重点改革领域、三个关联性改革组合), and aimed to set up a vibrant, innovative, inclusive market economy protected by the rule of law. The scheme called for breaking monopolies in a wide range of fields, lowering barriers to entry in industries including rail, oil and gas, as well as the removal of administrative structures in Chinese colleges. This plan was also rumored to be a potential reform blueprint to be adopted by the Third Plenum.

Various Chinese media agenda setters published reports introducing the contents, background and possible impact of the scheme. China Business News, one of China’s major financial newspapers, reported that considering the official background of this think-tank, the publication of the scheme had stirred market anticipation and enthusiasm. Southern Metropolis Daily, a Guangzhou-based newspaper known for its investigative reporting, published an opinion piece which both commented positively on some key reforms mentioned in the scheme and raised suggestions for improvements.

Articles in the mainstream media displayed both optimism about the mooted reforms and suspicion about the real impact of their implementation. There were also a wide range of discussions and interpretations among Chinese public intellectuals and opinion leaders, especially on social media. Qiu Xiaohua 邱晓华, former Director of the National Bureau of Statistics who currently serves as the chief economist at Minsheng Securities, summarised the mood of impatience and eagerness inspired by the scheme on Sina Weibo:

The so-called 383 Scheme released yesterday has inspired a lot of market dreams because of the special status of its initiator. On the one hand, market aspirations are up and people have very high expectations about reforms; on the other, the situation shows the impatience of the market and a lack of understanding towards China’s political situation. Of course, some proposals in the text accord with certain popular expectations but people who understand Chinese politics are very clear that it is merely a research report and of little practical significance: it by no means represents the spirit of party central.

Liu Shengjun 刘胜军, the vice president of Lujiazui Institute of International Finance at the China Europe International Business School commented in an opinion piece on the Financial Times Chinese website:

Though the ‘383 Scheme’ shows a certain direction and conveys important information, it should not be treated as the reform plan of the Third Plenum… in other words, the ‘383 scheme’ represents an ‘ideal plan’, but the scheme of the Third Plenum will be more of a compromise.

The Third Plenum Communiqué
The Third Plenum Communiqué was released on 12 November. The document was much milder than almost all previous discussions of the ‘383 Scheme’ and did not reflect many of the expectations of reform that had been expressed in the media. Subsequent reports focused on two main concerns: the proposed establishment of the National Security Committee 国家安全委员会 and a Central Leading Team for Comprehensively Deepening Reform 全面深化改革领导小组.

On the National Security Committee, there were positive responses from both official and unofficial quarters. Zhang Guoqing 张国庆, an international relations specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences commented in a Xinhua editorial that the establishment of the National Security Committee has come ‘at the right time’ and that ‘the establishment of a national security committee is international practice’., Phoenix TV’s news portal, also published a positive commentary by He Liangliang 何亮亮, one of Phoenix TV’s most influential commentators:

Only a strategically advantageous security plan such as this can guarantee that China’s development path is smooth. Moreover, I feel that on some level, [the proposed Committee] is quite similar to the US National Security Council.

But other commentators were disappointed. Zhao Chu 赵楚, a strategist and a columnist on international relations and military issues commented on Sina Weibo:

The establishment of such an institution [the National Security Committee ] is only a reflection of the Party’s will to power and the growth of the status of the military in the power structure. This has nothing to do with national security, it is at most a means to enhance the security of the regime.

In contrast, discussions of the Central Leading Team for Comprehensively Deepening Reform were mostly positive., the website of the party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, published an interview with Hu Angang 胡鞍钢. Hu, a Tsinghua University-affiliated economist who is regarded as a leading figure in what could be translated as ‘China National Exceptionalism Studies’ 国情研究, said of the Communiqué:

[The Central Leading Team for Comprehensively Deepening Reform] shows the determined commitment to reform of the Party Central Committee. This is an institutional arrangement directly led by the Party Central Committee, and it sends a very strong signal both at home and abroad about reform.

Many writers commented on the vagueness and the lack of specific proposals in the Communiqué. Writing on, Zhang Wenkui 张文魁, the deputy director of the Enterprise Research Institute of the Development Research Center at the State Council, compared the Communiqué to a traditional Chinese landscape or shanshui 山水 painting which has ‘a bit of ink and much blank space’, and called for ‘specific roadmaps and timelines of reform, in order to transform this shanshui 山水painting into a clear route map’.

Liu Yu 刘瑜, a young scholar who writes on democracy and politics, expressed a more uncompromising attitude (this appeared originally on Sina Weibo but recently all of Liu’s Sina Weibo posts have disappeared):

I find it really hard to convince myself to analyse this so-called Communiqué, it is a part of the systematic humiliation to which this institution subjects people by forcing the masses to resort to arcane ways of decoding statements about their own country’s future direction.

Song Zhibiao 宋志标, a journalist who was suspended in 2011 from his job at the Southern Metropolis Daily for writing an editorial commemorating the Sichuan earthquake and referring to the works of the activist-artist Ai Weiwei 艾未未, simply summarized the ‘talk about reform’ in the Communiqué with one word – delusion (蛊), according to a piece published on the Financial Times Chinese website.

A Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensive and Far-Reaching Reforms
On 15 November, a twenty-thousand word document called ‘A Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensive and Far-Reaching Reforms’ was published. It offered more specific details than the vague Communiqué, including proposals to abolish the policy and practice of Reeducation Through Labour, and a loosening of the one-child policy. Zhao Xiao 赵晓, an economist active on Sina Weibo noted that he was pleasantly surprised:

The Communiqué made people want to leave and the Decision made people want to stay; the Communiqué made people mistakenly think that China is becoming fascist but the Decision made them see that China is still firmly on the way to modernisation.

However, many commentators expressed doubt as to whether the reforms proposed in the Decision would actually be implemented. Ma Guangyuan 马光远, an economist and media commentator said to Southern Metropolis Daily:

However beautiful the Decision looks, if the reforms are not properly implemented, they will fail and be aborted.

Dao Erdeng 刀尔登, a writer and columnist wrote on Sina Weibo:

Under the premise of protecting the interests and status of the leadership, this current attempt to appease society includes quite a few measures and inclinations which ought to be welcomed; but it yet again avoids addressing the question of political freedom. Nonetheless, its implementation will definitely stimulate political aspirations; and after this, there won’t be much left to ‘reform’.
在保障集团的领导地位及核心利益的前提下,是一次总的社会安抚,不少措施和倾向值得欢迎;它再次回避政治自由方面的问题, 但其实施必定不能掩盖而是激发政治诉求,而此次之后,“改革”的余地不剩什么了。