Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Reading the tea leaves: China's Party plenums past and present

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
updated 12:28 AM EST, Sat November 9, 2013
A Chinese policeman stands near a sign that reads:
A Chinese policeman stands near a sign that reads: "Long live the Chinese Communist Party" in central Beijing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Past Communist Party plenums have been launchpads for major reforms
  • They take place in secrecy; behind closed doors
  • Observers looking for clues about China's future direction
  • Few expect far-reaching policy changes this time around

Beijing (CNN) -- China's new leaders, just one year in their posts, will meet in Beijing this weekend for the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party's central committee.

China watchers will be looking closely to see if this plenum becomes a launchpad for major new reforms, as the meetings have in the past.

But in Beijing's streets and office buildings, the conclave prompts little enthusiasm.

"Those things don't really interest me," shrugged a white-collar employee, walking off for lunch in a sprawling mall lined with shops selling luxury goods. "I don't have time for such topics. Too serious."

China's property problem
China's intriguing microblogging site
Secret letter found inside Halloween toy
Deadly bombing rocks Northern China

His lackadaisical attitude is excusable.

Plenums are typically opaque; held behind closed doors.

I remember covering past plenums in the 1980s and 1990s. It involved guesswork and tea-leaf reading.

I'd look for tell-tale signs -- like an unusually large number of government-issue cars parked inside a government guesthouse -- just to confirm that the plenum had convened.

At least now, the official media announces the dates beforehand.

READ: China's property bubble prices millions out of the market

Press locked out

This time, as in the past, the media is still not invited. No live-streaming, no microblogging, no press briefings.

Yet, the potential impact of the plenum's decisions will be hard to ignore.

Virtually every aspect of China's three-decade-old market reforms -- and their unintended consequences -- are up for review.

A "plenum" is simply an assembly or meeting of members -- in this case, the political elite of the Chinese Communist Party.

With over 80 million members, the CCP, in effect, directs a bureaucracy the size of a several armies.

Near the tip of its pyramid-like power structure sits the central committee, with over 350 members and alternates selected once every five years.

Although the central committee meets infrequently -- about three or four times a year -- it is still the country's highest policy-making body.

It serves as a kind of parliament of the Party. It formally approves important decisions on policy and personnel matters. Most of its members hold top positions in the party, government and military.

Politburo power-brokers

Many past plenums have been largely ceremonial, with important decisions debated and made by the Party's 25-member politburo beforehand.

READ: China meetings likely to chart economic agenda

But on occasion, plenums have been witness to robust debates and sweeping decisions on Party and government policies.

An example of this was the plenum held in Beijing in December 1978, at which China formally adopted a policy of opening up and reform.

China as we now know was conceived at that meeting, which came just two years after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

With new leader Deng Xiaoping at the helm, the plenum approved rural reforms that allowed farmers to sell a portion of their produce directly to the market, rather than farm their land collectively. In a short time, it dramatically raised standards of living.

All told, the 1978 plenum paved the way for fundamental changes: decentralization, rewarding hard work and discouraging egalitarianism and rejecting ideological dogmatism.

But few observers expect such far-reaching changes this time around.

David Zweig, political science professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says opposition from Party conservatives and vested interests may still be too strong.

"In my view ... Xi Jinping should not be strong enough so soon after taking power to pull off a major reform," he said.

Still, China's leaders will unveil some economic reforms even if there is no sweeping policy package, said Cai Hongbin, Dean of the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University - sometimes called the Harvard Business School of China.

"The Chinese economy is like a race car making a turn. You want to be very focused to stay on course and maintain constant speed," he said.

"If you slam on the brake while turning, you may easily lose control and get into trouble."

READ: Q&A: Cai Hongbin on China's reform hopes

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
updated 6:59 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
The new U.S. deal with China on greenhouse gases faces enormous challenges in both countries. Jonathan Mann explains.
updated 10:38 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
updated 3:26 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
updated 8:01 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
updated 12:51 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
updated 9:19 PM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
updated 1:28 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
updated 1:18 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
updated 10:42 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
China sends an unmanned spacecraft to the moon and back but is country following an outdated recipe for superpower status?
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Full marks for ingenuity: Students employ high-tech gadgets worthy of a spy movie to pass national exam.
updated 1:26 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Confucius Institutes seek to promote Chinese language and culture but some have accused them of "cultural imperialism."
updated 11:11 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
ADVERTISEMENT