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The rule of three

20 September 2012 By Wei Gu

China’s leadership change might be a big event, but it is another occasion that matters most for the Communist Party. A new set of leaders will be ushered in during the 18th Party Congress, expected to happen in October. To hear what they stand for, the world may have to wait until the “third plenary”, which brings together around 370 of the Party’s top figures, a year from now.

Chinese history shows the third meetings matter most. That figures: the first one is usually about selecting leaders, and the second about personnel changes in the government. By the time of the third plenary session, which has tended to happen a year after the first, the top politicians would have secured their power and formed a consensus on how to move forward.

The most significant was in 1978. At that year’s third plenary session, a second-generation of Chinese leaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, turned against the doctrine that that whatever Chairman Mao said must be obeyed. Deng instead pushed the idea of finding truth from experiments, and China’s focus shifted from internal debates and revolutions to development and opening up.

A third plenary in 1984 saw the concept of the planned economy abandoned. That year, China began to allow companies to issue stocks. Flash forward to 1993, and Deng put forward his views on the socialist market economy, prompted by a high-profile tour to Southern China, spanning adjustments to state-owned companies and rural reforms. It was at another third plenary in 2003 that Hu Jintao’s now famous concept of “scientific development” began to emerge. While official proclamations didn’t yet use that phrase, state media and other politicians soon started to.

China’s ten-year political cycles suggest that the next third plenary session will be another key event. Reform and development are always on the agenda, but income inequality and economic imbalances are creating new pressures on the incomers to come up with new ideas. While the “big reveal” is approaching fast, it’s that vital third pow-wow that could really set the tone.


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