Deciphering The Third Plenum Report

The Key to Addressing Reforms When You Have No Intention of Implementation

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. By 东方 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The hardest thing about running an authoritarian regime is assuaging the population’s desire for reform without actually doing so. It’s a tricky tightrope act that only the most agile of leaders can master. China’s recent Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress captured this balancing act in action. Unlike the Third Plenum of the 11th Congress in which Deng Xiaoping clearly articulated a set of free-market, economic reforms, this most recent meeting was a charade. The document released after their three-day meeting, known as the Plenum Communiqué, contained some legitimate calls for change. The only problem was that even in its original language the document is incomprehensible; it lacks coherent solutions and legitimate policy reforms. A drug addict with a monkey stenographer might have been able to pound out a piece of similar – or perhaps greater – substance.

To be fair, identifying necessary reforms in a country plagued by environmental issues, social and economic inequality, and political malfeasance is no easy feat. If Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and their band of merry men released a statement with too many calls for reform and policy changes, the bar would be set unreasonably high. At the same time, if in the Third Plenum they called for insufficient changes there would be tremendous public outrage that might precipitate political activism.

In this case, being vague is the best approach. If China’s leaders prescribed legitimate reforms for their economy and political systems, just think of the instability it might prompt. The millions of migrant workers who are denied health insurance, educational opportunities, and economic freedom would get overexcited. Calls to curtail environmental pollution would give the millions of Chinese who live in cities with toxic PM 2.5 levels such a sense of relief that they might pass out on the streets during rush hour, dying of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes. Discussing democratization or even more transparency in government might distract Foxconn workers from assembling iPads. It is clear that rushing into reforms without proper thought and consideration is a bad decision for a country still in the early phases of development.

Engaging In Premature Reform is Dangerous

For now the safest way to engage in reform is by avoiding said reform at all costs. They say the longer you wait for policy changes the better they feel. The right time for reform implementation, however, remains unclear. One can’t simply engage in pre-hegemonic reform. At the moment, the party is simply waiting for that special generation to come along. The wait of course will be worth it.
China’s 18th Party Congress can’t be upfront about the fact that reforms may be only attainable in the far-away future. China’s 1.3 billion people are bursting with all kinds of desires to experiment politically, economically and socially. If China was too upfront about its intention to postpone reform, there might be a nasty schism and nationwide protests. And it isn’t that the Communist Party doesn’t want to reform with its people. It just doesn’t feel ready.

How to Lead on Your Population in the Most Effective Way

Sure you can’t engage in it, but you definitely can talk about it. Even just saying the word over and over can excite your countrymen enough without succumbing to their desires. It’s for this reason that in the Plenum Communiqué there was a lot of mention of reform and other words that are sure to excite its disgruntled, frustrated citizens. According to a press release by the Beijing News, no prior Third Plenum report had as many uses of the word ‘reform’.

The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance, persist in beliefs, concentrate a consensus, comprehensively plan matters, move forward in a coordinated manner, persist in the reform orientation of the Socialism market economy, make stimulating social fairness and justice, and enhancing the people’s welfare into starting points and stopover points, further liberate thoughts, liberate and develop social productive forces, liberate and strengthen social vitality, firmly do away with systemic and mechanistic abuses in all areas, and strive to open up an even broader prospect for the undertaking of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Chinese readers must have gotten excited just reading this. “Persist…”, “concentrate…”, “stimulate…” This proactive language would leave any reform-deprived person brimming with optimism, if only for a while. One Chinese blogger wrote, “In the end it’s not important whether the document is consistent from beginning to end, because everyone can find what they need in it.” So long as Chinese citizens are satisfied with their government toying with reform, the Communist Party may be able to kick the can down the road and refrain from true policy changes for some time. Sure, citizens’ reform frustrations will continue, but at least everyone can be assured that no one is rushing into any big decisions.

China’s “Floating Population”

China is faced with an internal migration crisis, the scale of which cannot be ignored. In 2012, China’s internal migratory population (both inter- and intra-provincial) exceeded 250 million people. Within that population, those without household registration—effectively illegal aliens within their own nation—known as China’s “floating population” (流动人口), exceed 160 million. Predominantly rural-to-urban migrants moving to the industrial centers of China’s eastern seaboard, this “floating population” is the disadvantaged lifeblood of the Chinese economy.

Since the explosion of internal migration in the 1980s, China’s economy has triumphed (albeit at the expense of the environment), enjoying GDP growth in excess of 10% a year. The government too has implemented sweeping economic reforms to allow for greater growth of both state and private industries. The rich have gotten richer (China is second only to the US in the number of billionaires), and a substantial middle class has emerged (roughly 300 millions citizens). , Yet little has been done for a migratory population larger than the populations of Germany, UK, France, and Italy – combined! They suffer the highest rates of HIV, illiteracy, and crime in China. Their estimated 37 million children are severely undereducated.

Migrant workers assemble computer hard drives at the Seagate factory in Wuxi, China, November 6, 2008. In the last thirty years, tens of millions of rural citizens have immigrated to manufacturing centers in eastern China in the hope of earning higher salaries. (Wikimedia Commons/Robert Scoble)

The government’s current system is clearly broken, but why? And why isn’t the government helping?

The migration crisis is exacerbated by an outdated household registration policy, known in Mandarin as hukou (户口). Promulgated in 1958 by Chairman Mao, hukou operated as a method of controlling the labor force of China. Further, like the Soviet propiska system, hukou served as an internal passport, categorizing citizens as ‘rural’ or ‘urban’, ‘farmer’ or ‘intelligentsia’. Mao was keen on tracking potential dissidents, but moreover preventing mass migration of the peasantry to the industrializing cities. Rural citizens who moved and worked in urban neighborhoods were deemed illegal aliens and denied any welfare privileges associated with citizenship.

A household registration identification card, August 2, 2006. The hukou system is effective in establishing a social apartheid between the 90 million migrants who have proper paperwork, and the 160 million who do not. (Creative Commons/Micah Sittig)

Since the era of Deng Xiaoping, the pace of economic liberalization has been brisk, yet liberalization of labor policy has lagged behind. The Politburo rightly feared that if the poor migrated to the cities in droves, civic institutions would be placed under tremendous financial stress—stress to provide adequate health care, education, water, etc. to an increasingly congested urban environment. Several reforms notwithstanding, (such as allowing inheritance of hukou to pass from father and/or mother, as opposed to solely the father, and temporary urban residency permits for migrants), migration policy is remarkably similar to what it was in 1958. The results are catastrophic for the more than 160 million “floating” workers in the urban areas of China. They live without any civil protection from the state, while employers and the state profit from their “illegal” labor.

Why has the government failed to act on the cries of their main labor force? The answer can be divided into two parts.

The first, and most blunt point, is that the People’s Republic of China is an oppressive state. The government frequently incurs human rights violations, including denying migrants health insurance, jailing dissidents, censoring the Internet, and preventing religious freedom. Although the economy has liberalized significantly, much of China’s rule of law remains backward.

The second reason is that the government still shares Mao’s fears from 1958: the abolishment of the hukou system could lead to mass migration from rural areas and strain on urban areas. The sheer cost of providing social services to an additional 160 million people frightens the government from attempting any serious reform. Urban centers like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are already suffering from the side effects of overpopulation. From where would the money and space to educate, treat, and train 160 million people come?

So why doesn’t China’s “floating population” protest and demand an end to internationally recognized human rights abuses? In part, because in many cities, migrants have indeed succeeded in acquiring wage increases and safer working conditions. The government continues to provide sufficient improvements to the workers just to prevent a nationwide revolt (e.g., Chengdu has eliminated urban welfare barriers as of 2012). In addition, the workers are terrified that challenging the state could result in physical or financial harm for them and their loved ones.

In an age where an increasing number of Chinese are connected to social media (and able to bypass government controls), will China experience an “Arab Spring”-esque event? Or will the state continue to restrict the benefits to migrants, leaving INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) to provide essential social services to China’s labor force? Unfortunately for those suffering from this crisis, and the estimated 100 million additional rural-to-urban migrants expected by 2020, there is no clear answer.