Great hopes were vested in Xi Jinping when he became China’s President last year. As China approached critical mass – its economy second only to that of the US; its regional domination increasingly secure; its reach into the markets of Europe, Africa and the Middle East growing in confidence – the time had come for a leadership that was up to the new challenges. For the nation’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, there could never have been a better time to set China a clear new course.
With the publication of the Third Plenum’s reform plans today, we have the first chance to evaluate whether Mr Xi is living up to his billing. Could this be the moment when China demonstrates its ability to shake off bad old habits and embrace new ways that will make it a better place to live and a more comfortable partner? Is the moment for China’s glasnost and perestroika upon us?
There are certainly elements to welcome. The one getting all the attention is the latest rolling back of the one-child policy. China maintains that its tough requirement that most couples across the country have only one child has saved China an extra 400 million head of people. Foreign experts point out that, with migration to the cities, population growth would probably have slowed anyway, as it has in Japan and South Korea, while the preference for boys has landed China with a serious deficit of women.
This latest step in dismantling the policy is welcome, especially given the demographic nightmare the country will face as it ages rapidly.
Equally welcome is the plan to close labour camps – though they may end up being retooled under new names. Central government struggles to impose its will on provincial governments, which still place much reliance on the so-called “re-education centres”.
If these and other measures outlined in the verbose document fail to convince that Mr Xi and his colleagues are serious about radical change, it is probably inevitable. Glasnost and perestroika were popular in the West, but for Russian communists they were staging posts in the rapid collapse of party rule.
Shining through the new document is Mr Xi’s determination to retain and bolster the Communist Party’s hold on power. To the extent that this conflicts with demands for greater openness and liberalism, real reform is likely to remain, as in the past, for tomorrow, not today.