Like the stanza of classical Chinese poetry the structure and timings of the modern Chinese political timetable are increasingly governed by established rules and conventions. The political cycle starts with the five-yearly Communist Party Congress and major policy is then in part endorsed and announced through a series of plenary sessions of the Communist Party Central Committee. The next such meeting, the third plenum of the 18th Central Committee, is due this November.
More than some other sessions, the third plenum is a very significant way-marker in the Chinese political calendar. The meeting provides not only the first major showpiece for a new leadership team to set out its political and economic reform plans after a period in office but is also loaded with historical significance.
It was at the third plenum of 11th Central Committee in 1978 that Deng Xiaoping announced the opening-up of China's economy and the third plenum of the 14th Central Committee in 1993 where Zhu Rongji announced the “socialist market economy.” These are both watershed moments in China's remarkable economic transformation.
Hopes are high, therefore, that the upcoming meeting will set out its own range of far-reaching measures to spearhead reform over the coming years. This is particularly true given the growing consensus that China has reached a crossroads, and needs to start making much more rapid progress in shifting its economic model to a more sustainable mode of growth.
Major announcements are expected on issues including reform of the hukou household registration system, urbanization, fiscal policy, financial reform and the role of the private sector in China's economy.
However, despite the impressive scope of this list, if the new leadership is going to claim similar reforming credentials as its predecessors they will have to demonstrate the measures they set out represent a coherent package of reforms that are able to achieve system-wide change in the manner of Deng and Zhu. A series of piecemeal proposals that duck the most contentious issues will prove ineffective given the scale of the challenge faced.
Unfortunately, there are compelling reasons to believe that the present-day Communist Party, and its associated governing apparatus, no longer retains the ability of its predecessors to deliver bold system-wide reform. Rather, it appears its own preoccupations and the major imbalances and vested interests that have emerged in China's politics, economy and society over recent years have critically weakened the Party's reforming prowess.
A Broken Machine?
There can be no doubt in the period of reform and opening up the Party machine has forged a formidable track record of successful and far-reaching reform. In more recent years, however, there has been a strong sense that it has failed to live up to earlier achievements. Many commentators now refer to the last ten years as a lost decade and point to a lack of significant reform as the root cause of a series of worsening problems.
One explanation for this lack of effectiveness is what some have termed the “stability trap.” Put simply, it is argued that the Party's preoccupation with maintaining stability and its grip on power above all else has made it excessively cautious, unable to take the bold decisions of its predecessors for fear of upsetting the status quo.
Allied to the increasing bureaucratization and factionalism, resulting in often painfully long negotiations to form consensus before action can be taken, the Party has lost its capability to react decisively to the new demands placed on it by China's rapidly changing circumstances. As a result China actually faces the risk of much greater instability as unresolved problems exacerbate social tensions.