Column: The 3rd Plenary and the battle for legacy

Written by Amitendu Palit | Updated: Nov 8 2013, 11:14am hrs
The 3rd Plenums of the Central Committees of the Communist Party of China (CPC) usually outline the road maps for future reforms in China. There are similar expectations from the 3rd Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC to be held at Beijing from November 9-12.

A few examples establish the importance of the 3rd Plenary Sessions in Chinas economic policymaking. The 3rd Plenary for the 11th Central Committee of the CPC in 1978 transformed Chinas future by endorsing the opening up of the economy and ending decades of international isolation. While economically it marked the beginning of the China story and the journey towards becoming the second-largest economy in the world, it also kick-started political changes by passing on full control to Deng Xiaoping and emergence of the next generation of leaders around him. The 3rd Plenary of the 12th CPC in 1984 embedded structural reforms in Chinas economic agenda through strong focus on developing comparative advantages of coastal cities. The 3rd Plenary of the 14th CPC in 1993 enshrined the doctrine of socialist market economy and endorsed reforms in state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The 3rd Plenary of the 16th CPC in 2003 emphasised sustainable development, achieving balance between rural and urban development and reforms in property rights and government administration. Finally, the 3rd plenary session of the 17th CPC in 2008 fixed the goals for achieving rural prosperity and development.

Coming every five years, the 3rd Plenary Sessions reflect the twists and turns in Chinas economic policies as envisaged by different leaderships. The 3rd Plenaries of the 11th and 12th Central Committees reflected the economic thinking of Deng Xiaoping and his followers. Both sessions advanced major structural changes in agricultural markets and industrial production and opened up the economy to foreign investment. Chinas mega-industrial zones came up during the period and the entire East coast begun integrating with the Pearl River delta in a virtuous cycle of investment and exports. Chinas long march towards becoming the factory of the world took off under the direction of these two 3rd Plenaries. The next significant 3rd Plenary of 1993 took place under the leadership of Jiang Zemin. A strong proponent of market-based reforms, the Plenary not only planted market permanently in Chinas economic discourse, but also stamped Zemins imprint on Chinas modern economic history by unleashing painful restructurings in the SOEs including extensive lay-offs. The 3rd Plenaries of the 16th and 17th Central Committees reflected Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabaos more sober, down-to-earth and inclusive approach to reforms and economic growth.

All eyes are now focused on the upcoming 3rd Plenary in November for gauging the directions it will propose in Chinas economic policies. This will also be the first occasion when Chinas new leadership under President Xi Jinping will formally reveal its thoughts on future economic, political and administrative reforms in China.

Decisions on key matters in China are taken by the all-powerful standing committee of the politburo of the CPC. But long-term political and economic decisions with far-reaching consequences are endorsed by the 376 member Central Committee. The Plenary is expected to debate and decide these issues, which will subsequently manifest in external and domestic policies taken by the leadership at the Central level and the provincial governments at the local level. The debates at the plenary sessions are intense and influenced by different ideologies and interests within the Central Committee. It is therefore difficult to predict the eventual nature and quality of policies that will be adopted.

The Standing Committee of the Politburo represents two major political factions within the CPC. The first, led by President Xi, and including most other members of his team, represent the elitist faction owing allegiance to Jiang Zemin. Premier Li Keqiang represents the Tuanpaior league factionprotgs of Hu Jintao. The former group includes the Princelingsoffsprings of old revolutionaries and high-ranking senior officials. Most of the current leaders of the elitist faction are princelings having been educated in the topmost institutions in the West and having spent their early careers in businesses or local party and administrative organisations in Chinas flourishing East. The Hu Jintao faction, on the other hand, comprises several leaders from the economically backward regions and those who have risen up the ranks through the Chinese Communist Youth League. Premier Li, for example, became a top leader of the Youth League in 1982 and had since then worked closely with Hu Jintao. He was also Governor of Henan province in Central China, far away from the glamour and glitz of the economically robust coastal provinces.

Though the elitists under President Xi are in majority in the standing committee of the Politburo, the Central Committee has several representatives from the League faction. The eventual course of economic policy directions adopted by the 3rd Plenary will be the outcome of the tussle between the two factions. Clearly, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, despite not being heads of states any more, continue to remain the invisible hands in shaping Chinas future. The 3rd Plenary will decide whose legacy will live longer in modern China.

The author is head, partnership & programme, and senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore.

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