China's Third Plenum: a recap
by Elaine Dunn
First off: what is the “Third Plenum,” you ask? A plenum is a meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and a platform for the Party’s Central Committee leaders to announce major reforms. The third plenum is important because, usually, the first introduces the new leadership, the second focuses on personnel and the third is when the new leadership introduces its economic and political blueprint for the next decade.
China’s Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party (CCP) took place in November 2013. The reform package resulting from this four-day, closed-door meeting of the 204-member ruling elite and presided over by the newly appointed President and Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, focused on five key areas - economics, politics, social, environmental and cultural. To many, the reforms may appease a broad constituency while failing to break any substantive new ground.
Reforms that are expected to have more immediate effect on the society-at-large include:
Relax the one-child policy. The one-child policy was introduced in 1979 to reduce social, economic and population problems. The relaxation of this policy means couples will now be allowed to have two children if one parent is an only child. While many Chinese welcome the change, some young couples say they cannot afford more than one child! This move has potential for widespread social ramifications, ranging from reduction in forced abortions to re-enforcing the deteriorating long-held tradition of elderly reliance on their children for support in old age.
Ease restrictions on rural migration to cities. For decades, China’s rigid household registration practice known as the Hukou system is a major obstacle for rural residents seeking work and a better life in urban areas. Migrants have long been denied standard benefits such as health care and proper schooling for their children available to their registered, permanent urban counterparts. The government hopes by abolishing restrictions on settlement in towns and small cities and gradually easing restrictions on migration to medium-sized cities will increase domestic consumption in small- and medium-sized cities. Entry to larger cities such as Shanghai and Beijing will still be off-limits.
Replace re-education through labor camps (laojiao). Labor camps were introduced in 1957 to unite the country and create social order after decades of revolution. They were used to detain persons for minor crimes up to four years without any court trial. The system lends itself to misuse by local officials because of its lack of court oversight and transparency. Even though the CCP plans to abolish laojiao, ending this half-century old penalty system may not happen soon because, "Officially ending the system also requires the National People's Congress to declare the 1957 decision invalid," said Jiang Ming'an, a law professor at Peking University.
Allow rural residents greater rights to their property. Farmers will be protected from illegitimate land seizure, a frequent source of protest and social discontent. An agricultural management system will be created to provide farmers with more property rights. However, no real specific measures were given.
Reform the much-criticized national entrance examination for college. Success in this exam determines a young adult’s economic destiny. Under the current gaokao structure, the average student aspiring to enter a “good” university is often at a distinct competitive disadvantage to their well-to-do, better-connected peers. Changes proposed: allow multiple testing of subjects, including English, throughout the year; reduce the number of subjects to be tested, and abolish the forced either-or choice of going into the sciences or humanities by high school students.
Increase the role of the market in resource allocation. The CCP’s move to allow the economic mechanism of supply and demand to improve the efficiency and fairness in resource allocation is a sizable step forward, even though noticeably lacking in any true vital reform of the increasingly stagnant State-owned enterprises. Few China watchers actually expected Xi to take on the powerful state monopolies, judging the political costs of doing so as too high. However, generous state subsidies to state monopolies may dry up and bureaucrats may refrain from meddling in business decisions.
Establish a National Security Council and a new committee for reform planning. This is Xi’s move to tighten his grip over the CCP. Seen as a parallel to the National Security Council of the United States, it will oversee national security systems. In addition, a new leading committee “will be in charge of designing and supervising the implementation of reforms.” The new committee will report directly to the “top leadership,” bypassing the Central Committee and the Politics and Law Commission.
Promote judicial openness. In its inaugural post on Sina Weibo, The Supreme People’s Court said it will “publish important adjudicative information from the people’s courts at all levels, as well as major judicial interpretations and legal news.”
Finally, there were vague hints that institutions would be strengthened “to uphold the Constitution” and steps taken to improve the system of “judicial protection of human rights.” According to Lin Zhe, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, which trains the country’s top leaders, “Everything except the National Security Council and giving property rights to farmers is old and has been mentioned before by previous leaders in different meetings and reports.”
China’s new leadership hopes to inspire the country with its call to realize the “Chinese Dream.”
Even though the reforms seem to try to advance individual freedom and rights, the advancement of the power of the government appear stronger.