China's Communist Party has unveiled a glimpse of highly anticipated social and economic reforms for the world's second largest economy.
But following a closed-door meeting in Beijing, the initial response to the government's plan has been muted, partly because of the blueprint’s lack of specifics. Official summaries of the plan say it calls for a greater role for the free market in the state-controlled economy, as well as other “comprehensively deepening reforms.”
But there are few details about what those changes mean, how they will improve the lives of millions of Chinese and halt the widening gap between rich and poor.
Over the past three decades, China has lifted millions out of poverty as migrant workers moved from the countryside to big cities. But many believe that economic model must now be modified, to make Chinese businesses more globally competitive and its citizens better able to afford basic necessities.
Many Chinese struggle with finding affordable housing, health care and education. Beijing residents say they want to hear more specifics about how the government plan will improve their lives.
Miss Zhang who came to Beijing to work, says housing is a key issue for her and others.
“Many of us who work in Beijing can’t afford to live in a decent home because the rent is rising everyday,” Zhang said. "I wish the plenum would deal with the real problems we now have.”
Another resident surnamed Ji, who works for multinational company in Beijing, said housing prices and pollution were more pressing issues for him.
“These issues are at the heart of our daily lives. Big political ideas and policy pronouncements are not that relevant to the general public,” he said.
Market to play “decisive role”
In its communiqué, the government pledged to give markets a “decisive role” in the economy, which state media explains was a significant improvement from its previous designation of playing a “core role.” However, the focus on such subtle nuances failed to impress some.
On China’s social media websites, many welcomed the announced steps, but there were also those looking for more. Wang Dongya, a magazine editor, said that although he had high expectations for the plenum, it lacked substantial reforms in finance, taxes and supervision.
Lawyer Duan Wanjin said that he was disappointed in the few details revealed about reforming state-owned enterprises.
Another remarked that there was little difference between the current party meeting and the one held over three decades ago in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping began China's "reform and opening up" policy. The biggest difference between that meeting and this one, the user said, was the use of the word "deepening."
But Cai Jiming, an economist at Beijing's Tsinghua University says much like the reforms that Deng launched more than three decades ago, the current round of changes will require time to adjust laws and overcome the opposition of those with vested interests.
“The public would like to see a great leap forward in pushing reforms. Some even think that reforms can happen overnight,” Cai said. “However, reform in China can only come step by step.”
Market priority or state-owned enterprises
Some have already begun to note one big apparent contradiction in the government’s plan - its pledge to give the market more sway while also boosting the public sector.
State-owned enterprises are given subsidies, cheap loans from state-owned banks. Economists argue that private companies could use that capital more efficiently.
Cai said that from his perspective the government wants state-owned enterprises to compete more with private industry and that eventually the market will determine whether they succeed or fail.
Government officials have suggested that reforms could be made to allow private enterprises to invest in state run companies to help them diversify. But no formal announcement on that has been made yet.
Cai said one way to level the playing field a little more would be to require that state-owned companies give more money back to the government.
“Right now, state-owned enterprises hand in as little as 10 percent of their revenues after tax. I think they should increase that percentage in the future,” Cai said.
Internal struggle over reforms
However, some analysts say the lack of detail in the report does not necessarily mean that the leadership is not prepared to push forward. In some cases, it may be a sign that the top leadership has yet to win broader support within the party for reforms.
Legal scholar He Jiahong says that in the case of judicial reform the public’s increasing demands for more justice and the Internet is helping to promote reform, but ultimately politicians will set the pace.
“I would like the reform to be realized sooner, but from the perspective of politicians the most important thing is still for society to keep stable, because if you reform too fast then there will be instabilities in society,” he said.
Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that while President Xi has once again signaled his commitment to reform, allowing the market to have more sway and creating a more level playing field will take much longer than anticipated because of vested interests within the government.
“Many of the sons and daughters of the top officials as well as a number of former senior cadres are involved in these huge state owned conglomerates, so it is unlikely that these holders of vested interests will be willing to surrender their monopolistic power,” Lam said.
Security council, reform commission
Two specific items in the communiqué have drawn special scrutiny: a new state security council and a commission to promote reforms.
The state security council, analysts say, was created to help address what the Chinese leadership sees as growing domestic and external security threats such as social unrest, terrorism and territorial disputes.
Lam said that the organization is likely to ensure there is no challenge to the Communist Party's control on power.
The state security council “will incorporate the military, state security, police and other forces to ensure [against] what the administration perceives as the efforts by hostile foreign forces, usually a reference to the U.S., stirring up trouble in China, promoting a so-called color revolution in China,” Lam said.
He adds that such a development does not bode well for China's civil society.