Breaking Down China's Reform Plan

December 2, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: China

Breaking Down China's Reform Plan

Baby steps or revolution?

Another chronic problem that plagues the country—social stratification and income inequality—is similarly glossed over with some vague verbosity (Section 44). China today possesses one of the world’s highest Gini Coefficients—the measure of a nation’s income inequality. It is a society of a small minority of “haves” and a vast majority of “have nots.” And the gap is growing rapidly. This has bred deep social frustrations, resentment, and growing class tensions across the country. Meanwhile, many of those who have the greatest personal financial assets are parking those assets abroad—a telling indication of the elite’s lack of confidence in the government and the country’s future. There is some discussion of pension and health care reform, and of developing philanthropy. But again, specifics are lacking. Relatedly, there are particularly opaque sections (47–50) on the “social management system”—a euphemism for maintaining public security and order. Despite the dense prose, it is evident that the government intends to continue its harsh “stability management” (wei wen) repression.

Predictably, the environment comes in for substantial discussion. China is an environmental catastrophe today and prospects for the future are even worse unless serious steps are taken. Unfortunately, as with so many other sections of the Decision, specifics are lacking. Hollow sounding phrases such as “draw red lines for ecological protection” and “who destroys the ecology must pay” are offered instead of clear measures to clean up the environment.

The Decision also outlines a number of military reforms. Unlike the rest of the document, here specific reform measures are provided. New “joint operation command systems” are to be completed throughout the nation—suggesting that the sixty-year-old military region-and-district command structure may be abandoned in favor of joint service “theater” commands. This would be a fundamental departure from the Soviet-style military organization the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has had since the 1950s, and would move the military into an American-style command structure. Sections 55-57 of the Decision also offer several other specific suggestions for military professionalization, consolidation and modernization. Make no mistake: the military is a high priority under Xi Jinping—who has repeatedly implored the PLA in recent speeches to prepare to “fight and win wars.”

Finally, the Decision concludes with a predictable section on Communist Party authority and management of cadres. The language of this section indicates the simultaneous desire to enhance meritocracy and professionalism of party cadres and control corruption, while enhancing party control.

In sum, the Decision is a tedious read. Various sections are intellectually impenetrable, even to readers seasoned in deciphering Chinese Communist Party-speak. No doubt, much of the verbiage is equally incomprehensible to party-state cadres and the general population in China as well. Perhaps hidden in the opacity, however, may lie some concrete measures that will move the nation forward into the next stage of development. At least the nation’s leadership has undertaken a bold and broad attempt to grapple with the myriad challenges they and the nation face. Only time will tell, though, if the Third Plenum of 2013 will turn out to be the watershed that the famous Third Plenum counterpart in 1978 was.

David Shambaugh is Professor of Political Science & International Affairs and Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. He is also a nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program and Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is China Goes Global: The Partial Power (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Image: Flickr/calflier001. CC BY-SA 2.0.