While some view plenary sessions of the Communist Party as simply pomp and circumstance, the recent third session does herald some major reforms not only on paper, but also in the thinking of China’s leadership.
News outlets have noted the relaxation of the One-Child Policy and establishment of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone. What seems to be missing is an analysis of the plenary’s impact on China’s major headache: how to continue economic and social development while decreasing the degradation of the environment.
In its outcome document, the plenary notes that “…[t]o construct an ecological civilization we must establish [a] systematic and integrated ecological civilization, institutions and systems, and use institutions to protect the ecology and environment.” On the surface, this reads more like a typical slap-on-the-wrist UN resolution than mandate for reform. The Financial Times quotes a politics professor at Beijing’s Renmin University as saying “…[t]hese reforms are just like small repairs on an old road... they are about making small adjustments at the administrative level, but these are pretty meaningless and hard to sustain.”
While I agree that these are small changes, I would counter the implication that they lack importance. Here we see the real beauty of reform. Only 60 years ago the idea of questioning the Party would be unthinkable. Now, people are not only quietly disagreeing with policies, but are openly critical and slightly cynical.
"...these reforms are just like small repairs on an old road..."
I am in no way making judgments on the policies, reforms or work of the Government. What I am pointing out is the potential for increased collaboration, particularly between officials and experts. This is the logical extension of recent measures in accountability and transparency from the highest levels of Government. Many around the world bemoan the slow pace at which reform occurs in China, assuming that the one-party State should dictate with immediate results. Remember, though, that these policies must trickle down to various levels of municipalities and bureaus, not to mention over one billion people. Are things going to change overnight? Of course not! Nor should we expect them to. Ultimately, in analyzing the outcomes of these plenary sessions it is highly important to look at the potential for incremental change rather than sweeping policy reforms. The devil is really in the details here. If we continue to expect monumental shifts every time a measure passes, we will continue to be disappointed. The Chinese language loves the use of multiple meanings and requires a lot of reading between the lines. This is no different. By looking at details – the small stuff – we can begin to understand, analyze and predict the true impact of decisions made in Beijing.
How do you think the plenary session is going to effect change in China?