NOVEMBER 5, 2013
By Rodger Baker and John Minnich
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China will convene its Third Plenum meeting Nov. 9. During the three-day session, President Xi Jinping's administration will outline core reforms to guide its policymaking for the next decade. The Chinese government would have the world believe that Xi's will be the most momentous Third Plenary Session since December 1978, when former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping first put China on the path of economic reform and opening.
Whether or not Xi's policies will be as decisive as Deng's -- or as disappointing as those of former President Hu Jintao -- the president has little choice but to implement them. China's current economic model, and by extension its political and social model, is reaching its limits just as it had prior to Deng's administration. The importance of the upcoming meeting is that it comes at an inflection point for China, one that its leaders can hardly afford to ignore.
A Fundamental Challenge
It is worth recalling just how extraordinary Deng's 1978 meeting was. Mao Zedong had died only two years earlier, taking with him what little remained of the old pillars of Communist Party legitimacy. China was a mess, ravaged by years of economic mismanagement and uncontrolled population growth and only beginning to recover from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. Had the People's Republic fallen in 1978 or shortly thereafter, few would have been truly surprised. Of course, in those tense early post-Mao years hardly anyone could foresee just how rapid China's transformation would be. Nonetheless, battling enormous institutional constraints, Deng and his colleagues quickly set up new pillars of social, political and economic stability that guided China through the fall of the Soviet Union and into the 21st century.
Although Xi presides over China during a time of economic prosperity, not disrepair, perhaps not since Deng has a Chinese leader faced such formidable challenges at the outset of his tenure. Former Party general secretaries Jiang Zemin, and to a greater extent Hu, could largely follow the lead of their predecessors. Jiang, emerging as a post-Tiananmen Square leader, was faced with a situation where the Party was rapidly losing its legitimacy and where state-owned enterprises were encumbering China's economic opening and reform. But internationally, China's position was relatively secure at the beginning of Jiang's term in office, and by the time he took on the additional role of president in 1993, the decline of the Japanese economy and the boom in the United States and the rest of Asia left an opening for China's economy to resurge.
These conditions enabled Jiang's administration to enact sweeping bureaucratic and state sector reforms in the late 1990s, laying much of the groundwork of China's post-2000 economic boom. When Hu succeeded Jiang in 2002-2003, China's economic growth was seemingly unstoppable, perhaps even gaining steam from the Asian economic crisis. The United States, which had seemed ready to counter China's rise, was instead fully focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, and though the Communist Party of China was not exactly seen as the guiding moral compass of the state, the role of print and social media in raising criticism of Party officials had not yet exploded.