Written by David S. G. Goodman.

The recently-concluded Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party  has been regarded outside China as failing to deliver on the economic (and possibly even political) reforms regarded as being needed to sustain economic growth. This judgement may prove to be correct, if perhaps premature since more precise detail is yet to emerge about what is intended. A state security authority is promised; greater direction of economic openness, especially for the state sector; and changes to rural landholdings, allocation and mechanisms for redistribution.

Concentrating on the might-have-beens though seems a little strange as a method of analysis when the clues to the Third Plenum’s agenda have been clear for some time. Economic growth is not the sole goal of the strategy building on the last thirty five years and being developed further. There are two goals: economic growth and most definitely the maintenance of Communist Party rule, and the influence of its families and connections in the running of the state. Discussion of economic reform may have been signalled to be announced at the Third Plenum, but the political campaign has been gathering pace since 2012.  It is the interaction of these two goals that places the People’s Republic in China into definite unknown territory: in the first place the combination of economic reform and the continuation of one party-rule is considered unusual (to say the least) by comparison with other countries; and then in the last year or so the new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party have been returning to past methods of reinvigorating the party’s rule – on the one hand this has included a campaign to combat the corrupt behaviour and tendencies of cadres, on the other it has included a successful attempt to roll back the public political openness that had developed in the previous decade.

Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang may have a dynamic economic reform program waiting to be unleashed but  their political program is both very retro and very effective. It is not possible to travel anywhere in China at present without seeing ‘China Dream’ posters which promote the Chinese Communist Party, affluence, the unity of home and state, the idea of a Chinese Communist Party community. The artwork for these posters is very effective. Clean new styles reminiscent of earlier in the PRC art and poster work. Red faced girls from the 1950s; positive workers and peasants building the motherland; and the brightly coloured and highly dynamic Huxian peasant paintings of the early 1970s, but all executed and presented in ways that are clearly 2020. The nostalgia has even been reinforced by a most recent set of China Dream posters designed to appeal to older residents, showing a well-known and stylized Mao Zedong portrait from the Cultural Revolution (explicitly reminding the observer that older people can participate in the China Dream too) and worker, peasants and soldiers marching off to build their China Dream in artwork from the same period.

The rolling back of public political openness is also apparent. Once free-wheeling bloggers have been reined in and the degree of self-censorship amongst public intellectuals has certainly returned to the levels of the 1990s.  Amazingly, the Chinese Communist Party has managed to tie this aspect of its political campaign to the other part directed against corruption. The focus for this joint leger de main has been the trial of and punishment handed out to Bo Xilai. Bo’s punishment for corruption seems completely disproportionate to the amounts of money involved. It is generally assumed that Bo’s real crime was trying to push the envelope of politics outside the norms of CCP governance, even involving elements of populism and appealing over the heads of the Party itself to the people. It was this aspect of Bo’s politics that appears to have shocked the previous leadership of the CCP into reminding people of the Cultural Revolution rather than any of the policies or other practices adopted by Bo Xilai in Chongqing where he had been the leading cadre. A campaign against corruption is intended to reinforce messages about the CCP’s purity of intent, its actions in speaking for the people, and its reliability as the political institution entrusted with China’s future.

The big question is whether this general strategy will work? Can the economy continue to grow and expand while the Party-state, its structures, and its family influences play a dominant role alongside the so-called private sector? It is a bold step into the unknown for the CCP. No other country has ever attempted this mixture. But there are some key factors in China that might alter any calculus of success. One is that though the non-state sector is described as ‘private’ much of it is actually public-private hybrids of various forms and kinds. While this may challenge understandings of a private sector, it can also help explain the success of the leadership in dealing with vested interests when promoting economic reform. Another important factor is not only the lack of a credible alternative to the CCP but also the widespread dislike for political instability. A third crucial factor is the strength and unity of the elite: socially cohesive, historically determined, and significantly interconnected.

Delivering on the promise of continued economic growth and prosperity remains part of the solution as well as part of the problem for the leadership of the CCP, and in that context Western reactions to the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in 1978 spring readily to mind. Then there was widespread disbelief that the PRC could double and redouble its GDP by the year 2000, a target achieved well before that date. Just because the CCP defied gravity before does not mean it will be successful again, but it does cause pause for thought.

David S G Goodman is Professor of Chinese Politics in the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney.

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