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Column: The 3rd Plenary and the battle for legacy

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SummaryThe tussle between President Xi's and Premier Li's factions at the plenum will shape China's economic policy

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 China’s economic policymaking. The 3rd Plenary for the 11th Central Committee of the CPC in 1978 transformed China’s 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 China’s 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 China’s 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. China’s 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. China’s 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 China’s economic discourse, but also stamped Zemin’s imprint on China’s modern economic history by unleashing painful restructurings in the SOEs including extensive lay-offs. The 3rd Plenaries of the 16th

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