Issue: 2014: Vol. 13, No. 2

Special Issue: Introduction

Article Author(s)

Stephen Herschler

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Dr. Stephen B. Herschler is a professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University, and an associate of the China Research Center. 
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China watchers are to Third Plenums of Chinese Communist Party Congresses as film buffs are to the Oscars. One reason is the storied history of Third Plenum Decisions in the post-Mao era. Two of them marked epochal shifts in China’s political economy. The first, officially designated by the Party as “history’s great turning point,” was the Eleventh Party Congress’ Third Plenum in 1978. Deng Xiaoping’s ascendance became evident in a Decision that touted policies spearheading “Reform and Opening to the Outside World.” When it appeared that the events of June 1989 had cut off the engine of reform, in 1993 another Third Plenum trumpeted the establishment of a “Socialist Market Economic System” as the national goal. In the aftermath of that Decision, the Chinese economy revved into a high gear from which it has only rarely downshifted in the subsequent two decades.

Special Issue analyzing the “Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning comprehensively Deepening Reform of the Socialist Market Economic System,” issued at the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress.

While not all Third Plenum decisions are revolutionary, they are all important. They set the national agenda until a new national congress is convened and holds its own Third Plenum, producing its own decision five years later. Hence, they serve as a general “five-year plan” for Party work and thereby for government work as well. A Decision’s compositional structure denotes this purpose. Each chapter can be viewed not only as focusing upon a particular area of governance, but also as addressing particular parts of the country’s vast political-administrative apparatus. Decisions do not present blueprints but rather guidelines; they indicate priorities as well as behaviors that will receive the state’s support or sanction. The timing and details of implementation are the work of other documents, crafted in other institutional arenas and at other administrative levels.

While the production of Third Plenum decisions have become standard operating procedures in the post-Mao era, the most recent Decision, issued in November 2013, differs from any previous one: it is the first that has been put forth under a Party chairman who is neither a Party elder nor an individual personally chosen by an elder. The heads of the third and fourth generation of Party leadership, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao respectively, had been approved for Party leadership while Deng Xiaoping was still a force in Chinese politics. The head of the fifth generation of Party Leadership, Xi Jinping, became heir apparently only quite recently. Thus, many watched to see whether this ‘new’ generation is in fact new in substance as well as name.

Reports indicate that the document has Xi’s imprimatur all over it. In April 2013, not long after Xi became Party chairman, a 60-member decision-drafting committee was constituted, headed by Xi. Breaking with precedence, Xi himself presented an “explanation” of the Decision to Central Committee members in November of that year. The buildup, staging, and subsequent government actions conducted under Xi’s auspices all indicate that he is no cipher.

The contributors to this issue, members of the Atlanta-based China Research Center, draw upon the Decision to assess Chinese governance in a range of policy arenas. Each essay draws its impetus from particular sections of the Decision. The essays do not speak with one voice. Assessments vary as to the effectiveness, feasibility, and intentions of the both the Party’s professed aims as well as its actual actions under Xi’s leadership. With that in mind:

Yawei Liu’s critical appraisal of state-society relations finds prospects for political reform bleak and language suggesting improvements in social justice and societal self-governance to be at odds with recent state actions.

Andrew Wedeman takes up issues of law and order by assessing the scope, length and targets of the recent anti-corruption campaign, in the Party and out, raising questions as to its impetus and ultimate aims.

Baogang Guo places proposed administrative reforms in broader historical context, finding signs of more effective governance in the furtherance of decentralization, red-tape reduction and law-based administration.

Eri Saikawa takes up environmental issues, a topic that for the first time has received its own chapter in the Decision. Her analysis of air pollution problems finds that while new governmental goals are a positive sign, the sincerity and effectiveness of implementation efforts remain to be seen.

John Garver’s examination of defense and foreign relations highlights a two-pronged party initiative that seeks to secure China’s external development interests, regionally and beyond, as well as preclude ideological subversion domestically.

Xuepeng Liu analyzes the Decision’s proposed economic reforms and priorities, helping to decode what it might mean to have the market play a dominant role and yet have the state sector play a decisive role in ongoing market liberalization and expansion.

Penelope Prime hones in on finances, examining the challenge of maintaining high growth rates while concurrently addressing debt, deficits, and currency reform.

Hongmei Li draws upon the Decision’s proposals for cultural work to outline countervailing trends in state-media relations that seek concurrently to consolidate state oversight while promoting media expansion, at home and abroad, in a competitive market environment.

Saikawa’s question – They talk the talk but do they walk the walk? – reverberates in a number of the other essays, as one might expect of such sweeping policy proposals in most any country. Still, Xi Jinping’s relatively recent assumption of Party leadership gives the question a particular edge. If the Party stays on schedule, fall 2018 should see the issuance of another Decision, and with it a chance to assess the Chinese government’s progress on these various specific issues as well as to assess Xi’s leadership at the start of his second term.


We would like to thank Don Hoyt for the use of some of his photographs in this issue.