Inefficient government and worrying levels of corruption are seen as key barriers to sustaining confidence in China’s ruling Communist Party and to pushing through the reforms necessary to sustain growth.
Ahead of the third plenum, some public intellectuals hoped the government would push far reaching reforms to check official graft. The State Council Development Research Center proposed that officials should be required to disclose their assets – seen as a way of keeping them honest.
Not all the details have yet been published but so far it appears China’s top leaders have stopped short of such far reaching reforms. That reflects an attempt to shore up support amongst local leaders. Many see asset disclosure and a campaign promoting self-confession by officials as unfair and likely to be used in factional power struggles.
The top leadership seems to realize now that the broad and strong anti-corruption campaign that they have launched may alienate the very power base on which they rely. The third plenum’s alternative approach – emphasizing the role of the legal system and the authority of the Constitution – may resonate well among both elites and the public.
Whilst steering clear of more extreme proposals, China’s leaders have pushed through some major policy shifts.
First and foremost is a promise of greater judicial independence. Under the current system local judges answer to local Party Chiefs, who exert political pressure on their decisions. Under the rule of Bo Xilai, Chongqing city’s high court almost completely followed Bo’s orders. Abuse of power and police brutality became rampant in the city. In the future, vertical control of local courts by the national judiciary should strengthen the rule of law.
This new emphasis on judicial independence is also significant because recent messages – including the infamous Document 9 – suggested that the Party was moving away from the rule of law. Document 9 forbade officials from discussing seven sensitive issues: including universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, citizens’ rights, past mistakes made by the Party, state capitalism, and judicial independence.
The third plenum report has struck a more balanced tone. In an optimistic scenario, it offers hope that as soon as President Xi has gained support from the Chinese public (especially the country’s middle class) through market-oriented economic policies over the next couple of years, he will embark down the path of political and legal reforms.
The plenum document refers back to the equivalent meeting in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping was able to draw a line under the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and kick start China’s reform and opening. This year’s plenum will not have the same level of significance. Still, the Communist Party has hit the right points on sustaining economic growth by deepening market reforms. If they can do that, at least they should be able to ensure confidence in their rule.