Today saw the opening of the fifth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. On the surface, a meeting like this could seem to some a little dry and, well, dated. After all, the main topic of discussion is one that to many people could seem anachronistic—preparation of the next five-year economic plan.
But as a number of commentators have pointed out this week, including Chatham House’s Kerry Brown who wrote a widely-read piece for us on China’s economic prospects, there’s a lot more going on at the moment than grey bureaucrats’ number crunching.
Writing in Foreign Policy yesterday, Brown notes that there is what he describes as ‘an unusual cloud’ hanging over proceedings as the powerful Politburo holds its annual four-day meeting.
Why? In 2012, the so-called fourth generation of leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, are to step aside to make way for the fifth generation. The problem is, as Brown notes, that there’s no ‘elder patron’ to smooth things over in the way that Deng Xiaoping did for Hu.
‘No one knows what kind of battles might be taking place now in the central government compound in Beijing where the key leaders live and work. The politburos under Hu and Wen have been watertight. Nothing much gets out about who supports whom, and who is in favour, who in danger,’ Brown writes.
And he adds: ‘Rumours have swirled around Wen for some time about his lack of support in the party and his occasionally falling foul of Hu.’
Certainly Wen has at times appeared to be taking something of a lead on calls for reform, including his now famous remarks in the southern city of Shenzhen in August, in which he suggested that China’s economic reforms will fail without reform of the political system.
Interestingly, earlier this month there also appeared to be an official news blackout in China over Wen’s recent CNN interview conducted by Fareed Zakaria. It’s an unusual event for the Chinese premier to have a sit-down interview of this nature in the West, and certainly there were some tantalising suggestions of the struggle Wen might be engaged in behind the scenes when he told Zakaria through an interpreter:
‘I would like to tell you the following two sentences to reinforce my case on this or my view on this point, that is, I will not fall in spite of a strong wind and harsh rain and I will not yield till the last day of my life.’
What could he have meant? You’d think it would have been a hot topic of discussion in the media, yet the official media largely ignored it (the Xinhua News Agency, for example, merely ran a line tucked away in a story about Wen’s US trip saying the interview had taken place, and that he’d answered questions on ‘the world's economic situation, China-U.S. relations, China's reforms and development.’)
But if anything, this silence appears only to have fuelled curiosity online, making it a burning issue of discussion in online chat forums and prompting what many saw as an outpouring of support for a premier already popular among the public.
Some have questioned Wen’s sincerity in calling for reform, but Russell Leigh Moses, dean of the faculty at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, is certain that this weekend’s meeting promises nothing short of a political showdown, although he adds it will be an uphill struggle for Wen and his supporters.
‘What Wen and his allies want is to at least have political reform discussed at the plenum,’ Moses wrote today in the Wall Street Journal. ‘(But) many cadres believe that addressing China’s economic challenges is far more pressing than political experimentation. Some may not be opposed to restructuring of some sort at some point, but bringing political reform into the plenum, they believe, could throw the proceedings into gridlock, or produce open political warfare between factions who should be focusing on economic strategy.’
Adding to the intrigue was the release of a letter this month by 23 Communist Party veterans calling for an end to restrictions on free speech. Among the heavyweights making the demand to abolish censorship, including restrictions on the internet, were a former secretary to Mao Zedong and a former publisher of the People's Daily.
So, will the reformists get anything out of this weekend’s meeting, which as I mentioned is supposed to be about laying out the economic priorities for the next five years? I’ll take a look at some of the aftermath of the meeting Monday.
But in the meantime, I think it’s hard to argue with Brown’s conclusion for us earlier this week: ‘Stronger courts, greater civil society action and greater public participation are all necessary prerequisites for the future economic reforms that all know are also necessary.’