18th party congress sparks reform countdown

Hu Shuli says the next step is to turn into reality the aspects of Hu Jintao's work report that focus on building a fairer society based on the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 7:32am

President Hu Jintao's work report to the 18th party congress, as expected, responded clearly and positively to the loud calls for reform. China is at a political crossroads and can't afford to hold back. Compared with the 17th party congress report five years ago, this report revealed the ruling party's awareness of the pressing issues as well as its perseverance and progress towards achieving the goals.

The target of doubling gross domestic product growth by 2020 was set during the 16th congress, along with building a well-off society. This target was mentioned again five years ago, but this week the target was dramatically raised to doubling GDP and the per capita income of urban and rural residents.

Implementing market-oriented reforms has caused much controversy. Hu's report reaffirmed that this is the right path, and the ideology of continued development must be preserved.

The reports for the previous two congresses had separate chapters to explain why changing the economic growth model was important. At the 17th congress, it was titled "Ensuring Sound and Rapid Economic Development"; this year it became "Accelerating the Transformation of the Economic Growth Model" and begins with the words: "We need to expedite the improvement of the socialist market economic system."

The first chapter of Hu's report this year focused on economic reform, proposing that the key part of any such reform is to "improve relations between the government and the market". This comment has attracted much attention. The relationship between the public and private sectors has been an obstacle to greater economic reform. Since the 15th party congress, proposals have been put forward to develop the private sector while retaining state-owned enterprises as the economic mainstay, and this year was no different.

But Hu's report said state resources could be invested in important industries and areas that were key to national security and the economy, which suggests that the government should avoid heavy involvement in major competitive spheres.

The report even said the government should ensure various sectors had equal access to capital, labour and land, according to the law, while enjoying a level playing field in competition and legal protection. Such clear targets should be the focus of future economic reforms.

Political reform, which is of grave importance, was ranked sixth in the list of 10 tasks mentioned in the 14th party congress report. The issue was discussed in separate chapters in the reports for the 16th and 17th congress, and that theme continued this year.

However, Hu's report this year shed much light on the rule of law and institutional reform, with the goal of "fully implementing a basic strategy for the rule of law, with the completion of a law-based administration". Setting out a road map to achieve this goal should be straightforward.

The rule of law involves legislation, justice, enforcement and compliance. The 18th party congress report goes into more detail about abiding by the legal system than did earlier reports.

For instance, it emphasised educating leading cadres to use the law to deepen reforms, resolve conflicts and maintain stability. It also said the party's activities must remain within the limits of the constitution and state laws; no organisation or individual can be above the constitution or the law; and no one can be allowed to interpret the law for their own ends, to abuse their power, or bend the law for personal gain.

This sensitive topic has stirred debate on the internet. Compared with the 17th congress report that said party organisations and members had to "take the initiative" to uphold the law and constitution, the latest report is a big step forward and shows the party leadership's determination to push forward.

The 18th congress report attached much importance to building a more democratic system, discussing the roles of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in more detail than previous reports. It highlighted the NPC's role as a state authority, but also specified its functions of supervising the government and its two legal branches (the supreme court and the supreme procuratorate). The report suggested raising the ratio of grass-roots NPC representatives to party chiefs and officials.

We can expect further details on every aspect of these reforms in the near future. In particular, we need to watch closely the outcome of the NPC and CPPCC next year, when these proposals might become concrete policies.

The widely praised notion that "power must be exercised in the sunshine" was raised in the 17th party congress report. The phrase appeared again this time, with more details. For example, it proposed that people's "right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise" should be protected. All this shows the government's great courage in promoting administrative openness. "Power must be exercised in the sunshine" is set to become a major characteristic of mainland reforms.

The 18th party congress report covered a wide range of reforms. It is vital now that these plans move from ideas to realities. China is facing grim economic times and reform is therefore a race against time.

A smooth transition depends on the joint efforts of the party and the people. We only have seven years to achieve the goal of a "well-off society by 2020". Time and tide wait for no man.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine. www.caixin.com