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  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 2:47pm

Key Party meeting to forge China's future, but don't expect major political reforms

The third plenum will reveal the nation's direction under Xi Jinping, but will political reforms be part of the agenda?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 3:42am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 8:48am

As the Communist Party's Central Committee leaders gather in Beijing on Saturday for a closely-watched session, an expectant public - hungry for change - eagerly awaits proposals that might shake up the way the People's Republic governs itself.

The four-day gathering, called the third plenary meeting, is supposed to focus on economic plans.

But there have been signs that party politics may be on the table. In late October Yu Zhengsheng , the party's fourth-ranked leader, hailed the reform measures to be discussed as being "unprecedented". A subsequent Politburo meeting vowed to accelerate developments in five areas, including democratic politics, in a comprehensive and deepening way.

"The meeting will mainly focus on economic reforms. But the tone of comprehensive reform hints that the leadership is leaving some leeway for possible political reforms," says Cheng Li, director of research at the John Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But don't hold your breath awaiting momentous change: what Chinese leaders consider to be "political reform" is often very different from how it is defined in the West.

Political reform on the mainland is not about universal suffrage or balancing power among the administrative, legislative and judiciary branches, but about making the government more responsive, efficient - and powerful.

There is a yawning gap between what defines the word "reform" and what it means in practice. Ask a state think-tank scholar, an independent intellectual and an international researcher and you'll hear different answers.

International researchers insist there are standards that constitute positive political change. "Chinese political reforms are closely connected with economic reforms," says Cheng. "The current measures on anti-corruption are to some extent linked to political reforms. However, international researchers normally use free elections, rule of law and free expression of media as key barometers for democratic systems. China's political reforms are still a bit distant from using this standard."

Whatever is meant, there is agreement that China's government needs to change for the country to continue its economic success. "Without political reforms, what we achieved in the past three decades would be lost," said Zhu Lijia , a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance.

Political change has long been a sensitive topic in China. Before the 18th Party Congress last November, the media highlighted the hopes of Chinese citizens who were hopeful that the new leadership would kick-start the stagnant government.

Last December, party head Xi Jinping , chose Shenzhen for his first out-of-town excursion, a move interpreted by China observers as a signal of his commitment to the reformist path of the late Deng Xiaoping . Xi called for "greater political courage and wisdom to deepen reforms", in a politburo meeting after the Shenzhen trip. The statement fanned the public's expectation that something big was afoot.

But the hopes withered. Months after, Xi began a Mao-like campaign, tightening control of the internet and media expression - which is why liberal academics warn about prospects for a regime that eschews political change.

"China faces two possible futures: one is to keep reforming to improve and perfect the market economy and limit the administrative powers, and this will lead to a market economy based on a rule of law," wrote Wu Jinglian, a renowned economist, in an article published on iceo.com.cn in September. "The other is to keep strengthening the government's role and the country will march towards a dead end of crony capitalism.

"In the coming 10 years, China should actively and prudentially push forward political reforms, while accomplishing its market economy reforms. This should become the theme of China's future reforms and it affects the rise or fall of the Chinese nation and the fundamental interests of every citizen," Wu writes.

Suddenly, the topic of political change is re-emerging after months of silence. A recent news analysis published by Xinhua said that a political change would be an important accomplishment at the upcoming meeting, and that revamping government functions would be a breakthrough that could lead to broader political reforms.

But what those changes and shifts may look like depends on which expert is talking.

"In my view, the government's anti-corruption efforts, transformation of the government functions and the restructuring of the government organisations fall into the category of political reforms," says Zhu.

Li Chengyan , a professor from Peking University's School of Government, says: "It's unrealistic to expect the new leadership to deliver major political reforms after just one year at the helm. Possible political reforms might include those in the judicial areas to fight corruption." Democracy within the party will be improved gradually, he predicts.

Some independent researchers believe that state media tries to salve the public's eagerness for political changes, even though there's no sign of them happening. "They intentionally confuse administrative reforms with political reforms," says Zhang Lifan , an independent political affairs commentator in Beijing. "Real political reforms should include independent … media … direct and general elections and full protection of citizens' rights as stated in the constitution, including media freedom and free expression."

Both Li and Zhu rule out any possibility of the Communist Party abandoning its one-party ruling system.

"The party will increase democracy within the party and use inner-party democracy to push forward the social democracy. Media freedom is not on the agenda yet," says Li.

When it comes to revising the system, Chinese leaders take a pragmatic approach.

"Their focus is to solve the immediate problems, with economic issues topping the agenda,'' Cheng of Brookings says. "However, the market opening will eventually force changes in political systems. They might come back [to reforms] sometime in the future."

Zhang agrees. "All the reform measures we have seen for now are aiming to improve the government's efficiency and strengthen the party's ruling. So it will be in the future," he says.

This is, after all, China.

"You can't expect China would become a democratic system like Taiwan or South Korea," says Geoff Raby, an independent China observer and former Australian Ambassador to China. "The possible scenario is to become a system like Singapore."


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Reforms in China are about sustainable development that requires a development path compatible with China’s national conditions. Certainly, she would not adopt a national development model that even the US and other advanced countries could not afford. Many are hoping for a capitalist counter-revolution that would transform China’s socialist market economy into a capitalist one where the top 1% could perpetually maximize profits at the expense of the rest of the people.
Don’t expect Gorbachev Reforms (meaning reforms that cause short-term pain and long-term maim) for the Chinese economy as no Chinese leader wants to go down in history as China's Gorbachev. So sinophobes, China bears, financial market predators, global hegemonists, capitalist market economists, Chinese criminals and others are going to be disappointed to varying degrees.

Whatever they are when Chinese leaders talk about reforms, they certainly do not mean Gorbachev Reforms. So long as Chinese leaders do not forget the Deng Wisdom of crossing the river by feeling for the stones, China’s economy would not take a catastrophic turn. This Wisdom implies, if you cannot find the stones, then do not cross the river. China’s economy is not in the state of economic emergency unlike the economies in the West. Sinophobes and vested interests are trying very hard to scare a healthy Chinese economy into a crisis by transforming a possible economic crisis in 2030 into an immediate one.
Sinophobes: Those who dislike or hate things Chinese. They are not exclusively white. They come in various colours including yellow. They are extremely allergic to the thought of a prosperous, thriving and harmonious China.
China bears: Those who bet heavily on a Chinese economic disaster. These people wake up in the morning furious to find their fabulous fortune still in the dreamland year after year.
Financial market predators: Those who are working and waiting for serious weaknesses to appear in the Chinese economy in the course of hasty reforms so they could raid on Chinese people’s wealth. Ask the former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad what happened to his country during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and President Putin of Russia what happened to his country during and following the heydays of former President Gorbachev’s reforms. And why he cried when he won the 2012 Presidential election. He knew how close his country was to another catastrophe.
Global hegemonists: Those who are having recurrent and aggravating nightmares that if the Chinese economy keeps growing at close to 8% a year, it will be the world’s largest by the end of this decade and more double the next largest economy by 2030 and all the implications this situation will have the global geopolitics.
Capitalist market economists: Those who believe that a socialist market economy cannot and should not work. Capitalist dogma demands that, notwithstanding accumulating evidence over more than 30 years. Any working socialist market economy is only transient and would in time morph itself into a capitalist one. These people are often part of or closely associated with the financial market predators and the global hegemonists.
Chinese criminals: Those who have amassed enormous wealth through corruption and/or other illegal means. These people are hoping frenetically for “financial market liberalization” so that they could transfer their ill-gotten wealth out China before the law catches up with them. They desperately need full convertibility of the RMB and removal of capital account controls. Financial market predators and the global hegemonists also need “financial market liberalization” badly, but for different purposes. Financial instability and crises in China are needed by the former for profits and by the latter for global hegemony.
Others: Those who wish to see China fail or cease to develop further and do not fall into any of the above categories.
Compared with Singapore and the other tiger economies, China may still be considered a socialist market economy. Yes, there is a very strong current pushing her towards state capitalism. The problems of corruption, abuse of power, incompetence and mismanagement must not be confused with state capitalism.
The CCP has more euphemisms than you can shake a stick at. But actual political reform in any meaningful and tangible sense will merely be paid lip service, if at all.
The economic reforms might actually stand a chance of having some meat to them, since even Xi and Li seem to recognize the need for evolution.
China's is not a socialist market economy, it is state capitalism controlled by a corrupt party elite, period.


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