China's third plenum

Expectations mixed as China's third plenum meeting begins

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 4:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 8:51am

As about 400 of the nation's most powerful people meet in Beijing today for a key Communist Party meeting, hopes are high and the stakes huge. But clarity will probably be painfully lacking.

The tortuous name of the meeting itself - the third plenary session of the Communist Party's 18th Central Committee - baffles most people. Historically, landmark changes have been set in motion at the meeting.

Already, some are comparing this four-day session with the ones in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping kick-started the open-door reforms, and 1993, when then-premier Zhu Rongji endorsed the "socialist market economy".

The optimism seems to stem from the launch of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone and the release of a proposal, dubbed "383", by the Development Research Centre of the State Council.

The blueprint, written by President Xi Jinping's reform-minded adviser, Liu He , and former premier Zhu's secretary, Li Wei , carries political clout and listed several goals, including the internationalisation of the yuan within a decade and the liberalisation of interest rates within three years. But while these hint at the meeting's general thrust, it is still very much guesswork.

Thirty-five years since Deng's famous 1978 plenum that transformed China into the world's second-largest economy, the decision-making process at the top remains opaque. From now until the meeting ends on Tuesday, little information will be released to the public.

"Even if they are going to host a press conference, they would only be asked questions they already know are coming," said James McGregor, chairman of APCO Worldwide, China.

The meeting will set a general tone, with only some reforms receiving specific instructions for implementation.

Tracy Tian, vice-president of China strategy for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said: "We have to look at whether the reform is about equality or productivity. If it's about productivity, making the pie bigger, then people will support it, but if it's about equality, redistributing the pie, then someone will … push back."

McGregor said foreign business leaders' patience was running out. "They [Chinese leaders] have to do something with a bit of a wild factor, because foreign businesses are feeling less and less welcome here."