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Report: Plateau China: Reform in the ten years after the Third Plenum of 2013
By Charles Parton
I am happy to share a report from Charles Parton, an Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy and a retired British diplomat with a long history of working on China-related issues.
Plateau China: Reform in the ten years after the Third Plenum of 2013 analyses what to expect at the Third Plenum of the 20th Party Congress, and where the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stands ten years after the Third Plenum of 2013.
The report is long and so I have included it as a PDF at the end of introductory comments from him. I hope you find it useful - Bill
The 3rd Plenum – a retreating mirage?
The attached report looks at the decade of reform since the 3rd plenum of November 2013. It was written in expectation of a 3rd plenum last or this month. The norm is seven plenums during the course of a five-year Central Committee term and they are generally announced at the politburo meeting at the end of the preceding month.
Since 1980 3rd Plenums have been held usually in October, sometimes in November, and once in December (but that was the 3rd plenum of the 11th Central Committee, in many ways an exceptional one: it was the starting gun for Deng Xiaoping’s era of reform) and they centre on setting economic guidance for the next five years.
This year’s 3rd plenum has been eagerly anticipated. Not only would it mark the tenth anniversary of the big reform programme declared by Xi Jinping, but also it would come at a time when the Chinese economy is hitting turbulence. But so far, no hint of a date. And it is getting late. What is going on?
We cannot be sure. There are three possibilities:
It could take place in late November. Article 22 of the Party constitution lays down that a plenum be announced by the politburo. Xi is likely to be attending the APEC meeting in the US. So, on his return (around 18-20 November), an early politburo meeting (it usually meets in the last days of the month) could be called, with the 3rd plenum announced for the end of the month.
The politburo meeting of late November could announce a 3rd plenum for early December. This is tight, because the important Central Economic Work Conference is usually held around 10-15 December.
The 3rd plenum will not be held in 2023. Article 22 of the Party constitution lays down that there must be a plenary session of the Central Committee every year. The 2nd Plenum held in February fulfils that condition.
Past Central Committees have held seven plenary sessions during their five years. The first immediately after a Party Congress confirms Party leadership positions and the second confirms leading posts in the National People's Congress, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and changes to the State Council. The seventh prepares the ground for the next Party Congress. In between are four plenary sessions which lay down Party guidance in four important areas. The 3rd plenum usually focuses on the economy.
The 3rd plenum could be held in early 2024, with the 4th Plenum taking place in the autumn. Two in one year would get the Party back on track for holding seven during the 20th Central Committee. Or Xi may have decided to hold only three ‘meaty’ plenums between those already held and the plenum setting up the 2027 Party Congress. Six plenary sessions, although highly unusual, would still be in line with article 22 of the Party constitution.
The ‘economic’ plenum could thus take place in early 2024, autumn, or even be delayed until the autumn 2025 plenum (for the 19th Central Committee the ‘economic’ plenum was the 5th Plenum in 2020, which meant that it aligned with the launch of the 14th Five-Year Plan).
The problem with this delay until 2025 is that the drawing up of the 15th Five-Year Plan should be in line with the direction set for the economy by the Party’s ‘economic’ plenum. In 2020 that perhaps mattered less, because the 3rd plenum of 2013 had set the direction for reforms whose deadline for completion was 2020. Therefore the thrust of the 14th Five-Year Plan was clearer: build on the completed reforms (they were not completed, which is the theme of the report issued today). But here in 2023, the direction in which the Party must take the economy to free it from the woes and throes currently enmeshing it is not clear.
This is not just esoteric ‘pekingology’. Domestic economic actors need to know how policy might affect their business decisions. The same applies to foreign companies working in or investing in China. And most importantly, both want to know how Xi might change the economic model from one which in 2013 was “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable”. A decade on, it is by no means clear that reform has freed the economy from those ‘3 Uns’.
If you are having issues with downloading the PDF you can also find the report here.
And here is an official translation of the Communiqué of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China
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