China’s Leaders to Meet and Discuss Reform Prospects

The depth of President ’s commitment to reform has come under scrutiny since he took power in March. But in recent comments on an inspection tour of Hubei, he spoke about the need for far-reaching reforms in various areas, possibly as part of an effort to placate critics ahead of important meetings of the top leadership. From Global Times:

China must deepen reforms in major areas with “ever more political courage and wisdom” to surmount the institutional barriers that are restraining growth, President Xi Jinping has stressed.

Xi made the remarks on Tuesday at a conference in central China’s Hubei province, attended by senior officials from Hubei, Shanxi, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang and Hunan provinces and Shanghai Municipality.

“China must break the barriers from entrenched interest groups to further free up social productivity and invigorate creativity,” Xi urged, while hailing reform and opening up as the source of China’s progress in recent decades.

“There is no way out if we stay still or head backward,” he said. [Source]

One specific plan Xi discussed was rural land reform, though he indicated that his administration would not move away from the collective land ownership system currently in place. From the South China Morning Post:

After being briefed on rural land-use rights, Xi said during a visit to Hubei’s rural land rights exchange centre in Wuhan that Beijing would research the issue and take those findings into consideration when deciding on the reforms.

Xi said there were still questions as to how to amend the system while still adhering to the collective land ownership system in rural areas.

Issues to consider, he said, included not only ensuring that there was enough farmland and grain security, but also increasing farmers’ incomes through legal land rights transfers. [Source]

Further details of Xi’s planned reforms have not been announced and will likely be decided on during the annual secretive gathering of top leaders at the Beidaihe seaside resort. A year ago, leaders gathered to plan for the political transition to Xi’s administration; this year, the newly-installed Politburo will likely map out and attempt to reach consensus on how far they are willing to take political and economic reforms. From South China Morning Post:

“The will almost certainly meet before the end of this month to decide policy direction for the coming year and set the agenda for the third plenum,” said Deng Yuwen , former deputy editor of Study Times, a key publication run by the Central Party School.

Analysts noted that the seven most senior officials from the Politburo Standing Committee had all made inspection trips across the country earlier this month to “prepare for the upcoming series of important meetings”.

The analysts expect President Xi Jinping and second-in-command Premier Li Keqiang to use the plenum to unveil their political and economic agendas.

Steve Tsang, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and director of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University in Britain, said: “I think Xi will try to use his ‘honeymoon’ period to push forward his reform agenda. What we have seen so far, particularly party reforms, will probably figure high on the list.” Xigen Li, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong’s department of media and communications, said of the plenum: “People have their own agendas to present at such meetings, depending on the urgency of the issues and the negotiations among participants.”

Since assuming the presidency, Xi has not been able to demonstrate that he has taken decisive leadership over rival factions in the Communist Party. A crackdown on corruption and excessive government spending may have intensified the jockeying for support from Xi and his allies. A recent public declaration of support for Xi from former President led many to believe that he was making an effort to solidify Xi’s power and make a show of unity. From Cary Huang in the South China Morning Post:

The remarks by Jiang – praising Xi as a “strong and capable leader” who had his full confidence – came earlier this month during a meeting with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, but were not reported until Monday.

“The development is a worrying sign that the new leader still lacks the authority within the hierarchy, even more than half a year into office,” said Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a veteran China watcher.

Chen Ziming, a political affairs commentator, said the appearance suggested Xi was still having trouble consolidating support for his agenda. “It revealed the division within the party over reform and policy direction,” Chen said. [Source]

Yet Russell Leigh Moses in the Wall Street Journal points out that Jiang’s comments may actually be an effort to protect his own allies in the corruption crackdown:

…Then why would Jiang want to help Xi?

The likely answer is that Jiang is being asked by his own supporters to shield them and the political networks that they’ve built from Xi’s anti-corruption drive. Given the nature of political tenure in China, some of the more vulnerable cadres in the current crackdown would be high-ranking officials who first gained placement and promotion under Jiang, and therefore would be under his protection. Jiang may well have cut a deal with Xi and his supporters to be less draconian with his people than with those who are loyal to former leader Hu Jintao and others.

In other words, this is Jiang reaching out to calm his comrades, nodding to them that they should now trust Xi’s leadership – a message supplemented by photos of he and Xi together from years back that have been given renewed prominence online in the last day.

Another topic that is expected to be discussed at the Beidaihe meetings is the fate of disgraced Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, who is under investigation awaiting trial. Read more about prospects for economic reforms under Xi and Premier Li Keqiang via the latest CDT Money column.