By Steven Massa
The Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, held from November 9 to 12, concluded with the announcement of a number of reforms, including the end of the “re-education through labor” (RTL) system and a more “decisive” role for the free market in the nation’s economy. Some have hailed the planned reforms as among the most important since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms begun at the 1978 Third Plenary Session; others both in- and outside of China are more skeptical of what these reforms will actually accomplish. With China continuing to assert its political and economic influence on the world stage, the nature and effects of these reforms will be of particular interest.
The main thrust of these efforts can be understood as an attempt by Chinese leaders to help secure the position that China has been developing for itself in the international sphere. The economic reforms are trying to build off previously successful liberalization policies that allowed China’s rapid growth into one of the most economically successful and influential modern states. Among them is the creation of a national central committee to oversee the implementation of many of the other proposed reforms: by providing a stronger guiding hand to the reform process, China hopes to overcome some of the issues it has faced previously, including overproduction and a somewhat multi-directional hierarchy.
Through its social reforms, including an easing of the one-child policy along with the end of the RTL system, the Party can be seen as accomplishing a few goals. Both of these programs contribute to China’s image as an un–free authoritarian state, and by announcing reforms China can continue to build its standing on social issues with its more liberal international colleagues. The reform of the one-child policy also has the advantage of serving a more utilitarian interest in that it will help to stabilize China’s birth rate at a level compatible with its economic goals.
Whether these reforms actually accomplish their goals or even whether they are effectively implemented in the near-term remains to be seen. A target date of 2020 for the implementation of the economic goals was announced, a rather surprisingly specific goal. The measures certainly seem to set a path that, if followed, would maintain or even increase China’s already substantial position in world markets. Combined with hints (or at least appearances) of domestic social reforms, it is possible that China is not only attempting to shore up its economic position, but also preparing itself for a long-term emergence as a regional hegemon. Thus far, although China has been able to use its economic standing and resources to spread its influence both regionally and globally, it has not been able to effectively parlay this influence into a more substantial role in regional or international politics.
This is partly due to the fact that a number of its regional neighbors, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, view China as a security threat, while still acknowledging its importance as a trade partner. These states and other international actors—like the US—recognize China’s growth and potential; however, its rise also threatens their own positions and poses a possible threat to liberal international systems were they to be dominated or strongly influenced by an illiberal authoritarian state. If China can improve the image of its domestic policies, as it may be attempting to do, it might be able to decrease some of the opposition to its rise.
The recently announced reforms will undoubtedly be insufficient to allay such concerns. And without the settlement of territorial disputes, regional powers are unlikely to yield to a Chinese hegemon. China, while it has successfully placed itself in an influential position in the international system, still has a ways to go on its road toward the more substantial role it may covet. The reforms of President Xi Jinping, if effective, may represent the first steps along that road.