They Said, We Said: Ruminations on the Third Plenum from IR/PS Professors

After the Third Plenum official report was released at the end of last week, we asked some of the distinguished minds of the IR/PS faculty to share their reactions to the plenum.  Here is a collage of quotes from IR/PS China scholars:

With the Third Plenum decision, China's leadership has broken with a decade of stagnation in economic reform and laid out an ambitious and wide-ranging program of change.  They have now promised action on fiscal and financial reforms and the land system, and a renewed push to improve state enterprise management.  Attention now shifts to whether they can deliver. 
-       Barry Naughton, Sokwanlok Professor of Chinese International Affairs, IR/PS

China's environmental problems have emerged as a priority issue in the Third Plenum, which calls for the institutional reform of ecological and environmental protections. The communiqué highlights the importance of property rights on pollutant emissions and natural resources. It demonstrates that the Chinese top leadership has correctly identified the root cause of environmental pollution and ecological degradation. The proposed action plan sounds very promising. First, GDP will no longer be the dominant performance measure for government officials. This could prevent local governments from growing the economy at the cost of the environment. Second, market-based instruments such as carbon markets were advocated. Economists have long suggested that economic incentives are more efficient than command-and-control policy in dealing with pollution. I am generally optimistic about the direction of the reform. However, my major concern is guaranteeing compliance of provincial and local governments. Without a serious scheme of enforcement, the so-called ‘ecological civilization’ might be just another slogan. 
-       Junjie Zhang, Assistant Professor of Economics, IR/PS

To be sure, some important policies were announced, such as the relaxation of the one child policy and land circulation. Surprisingly, Premier Li Keqiang was not part of the core team that drafted the document. One wonders: if he played no major role in drafting it, will he enthusiastically implement it? 
-       Victor Shih, Associate Professor, IR/PS

“I was quite struck by a couple of things about the Third Plenum resolution that was just released. One is how different “ in language, tone and substance – it is from the brief communiqué that came before it. The communiqué was full of platitudes and, in Professor Barry Naughton’s words, very pro-SOE [State-owned Enterprises], while the resolution actually laid out some very specific measures about reforming the SOEs and the economy. Another is that the resolution itself seems to be disjointed even though it contains a lot of substance. It includes lofty statements of principle (e.g. Deepening the reform while raising the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics), but it also drills down to the minutia of details, such as setting a 30% target for the SOE dividend remission to the central coffers and proposing to reduce the number of tests for the college entrance exam.

That said, I think the Third Plenum resolution has laid out an ambitious agenda for comprehensive reform, not just in the area of economy, but in party affairs (e.g. line of reporting for the party disciplinary commission), in politics (e.g. some degree of judicial independence, and abolition of the labor re-education system) and in society (e.g. relaxation of the single-child policy). The proof of the pudding is in the eating. It will be interesting to watch how and if China will have the will and wherewithal to carry out such an ambitious reform agenda in the next two decades. 
-         Lei Guang, Director, 21st Century China Program, IR/PS

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Marika Heller

is a second-year MPIA student at IRPS with International Economics, Management, and China concentrations and Editor-in-Chief of the China Focus blog. She holds a B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Chinese from Middlebury College, and an M.A. in International Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute. She lived in Chengdu, China for two and a half years where she worked at a sustainable development NGO doing micro-finance and earthquake relief, and also at an international marketing and entertainment company.

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