Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's reforms: Enlarging but not discarding the cage

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
November 21, 2013 -- Updated 0353 GMT (1153 HKT)
The Chinese economy has been likened to a bird and the Chinese political system to a bird cage: While the cage may be enlarged to let the bird fly more freely, it must never be discarded.
The Chinese economy has been likened to a bird and the Chinese political system to a bird cage: While the cage may be enlarged to let the bird fly more freely, it must never be discarded.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Far-reaching reform package indicates Xi Jinping's growing influence
  • But reforms come as Xi tightens media controls and pays homage to Mao Zedong
  • Rhetoric suggests Xi is signaling "left" so he can turn "right"
  • Chinese political system likened to a bird cage: Cage can be enlarged but not discarded

Editor's note: Jaime's China is a column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- One year in the job as the Chinese Communist Party supremo, Xi Jinping so far has presided over a relatively smooth transition of leadership. But what is his vision for the next 10 years, when he is expected to serve as paramount leader?

No one has a crystal ball that gives definitive clues.

In the first few months since he took power, Xi has pushed a popular and arguably progressive agenda: attacking corruption, not just flies (junior officials) but a few tigers (senior officials) too; curbing official extravagance, like senseless banqueting, and, one of my favorites, banning "empty speeches."

But in recent weeks, Xi has turned "left". He allowed tighter control over the traditional and social media, silenced dissenting voices among academics and scholars, and cracked down on liberal activists, petitioners and protesters.

Noodle making robot popular in China
China's one child policy changes
Impact of China easing 'one child' policy
Why did China ease its one-child policy?
China to relax one child policy

READ: How's Xi doing? A report card

At the same time, Xi has paid homage to Chairman Mao Zedong and some of his preaching.

He visited a few revolutionary shrines, endorsed the Maoist practices of "criticism and self-criticism" -- ostensibly to purify the party ranks -- and advocated "mass line" campaigns to improve the party's popularity among the people.

Analysts wonder: Is Xi a Maoist or a Dengist? Is he a conservative or a reformist?

Clearly, Xi is not a Chairman Mao nor a Deng Xiaoping. Like his two predecessors -- Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao -- Xi is not a legendary revolutionary figure who can command absolute loyalty. In the current political system, he is merely a primus inter pares -- first among equals, who leads by consensus.

Left or right?

Like Deng, Xi may not have to seek absolute dominance, a la Mao, to be an effective leader. Instead, he may just seek to find the center of the debate.

Still, unless and until there is fundamental political reform, China will remain a nation more dependent on the power of a single leader, a charismatic strongman, than on institutions.

Friends in China asked me these same questions, and my honest answer is: no one knows for sure, but I think Xi is signaling "left" so he can turn "right".

Expectations of Xi were high on the eve of the Third Plenum of the Communist Party's central committee, China's 300-plus political elite, who last week met behind closed doors in Beijing.

Sinologists had drawn parallels to the Third Plenum in 1978, a landmark meeting that launched Deng Xiaoping's reform and open-door program.

Chinese media accounts on documents approved during the plenum signal significant changes:

  • The controversial one-child policy will be gradually relaxed;
  • The notorious "re-education through labor" camps will be phased out;
  • Government meddling in the economy will be curbed and
  • State-owned enterprises will now have to compete with the private sector on level playing field.

READ: China to ease one-child policy, abolish labor camps

Prickly issues

China's top leaders have been deliberating these prickly issues for years, but decisions have been put off for lack of consensus or political will. That Xi was able to push these through this time, analysts say, indicates Xi's growing influence.

The Plenum has also agreed to set up two new institutions: the Leading Group on Comprehensive Deepening of Economic Reform and the National Security Commission.

The security commission will be a supra-ministerial body that will take charge of over-arching security issues, including military and police matters, territorial disputes, cyber-attacks and ethnic unrest.

Xi is expected to play a leading role in the two groups, even though Premier Li Keqiang may head the economic reform commission.

These institutions, analysts say, will allow Xi and his team to supervise the complex and often conflicting bureaucracies -- the Communist Party, the government, the military and police in a top-down authoritarian way.

READ: Chinese labor camp inmate tells of true horror of Halloween 'SOS'

Proponents of reform sound optimistic.

Endorsements

The plenum gives market forces a "decisive role" that will allow enterprises and individuals to invest more overseas, economist Wang Zhile, an expert on international business and trade told me.

The most significant endorsement came from Wu Jinglian, the octogenarian guru of the Deng's reform program who also served as doctoral degree adviser of Premier Li Keqiang at Peking University.

Speaking in Beijing this week, Wu said the system set up by China in 1978 when China embarked on reform and opening was "the initial primary-stage version of market economy for the late 21st century, which still took on many vestiges of the old system."

The one put forth by Xi, he said, is "an upgraded version for a more mature market economy system that suits the current demands."

But analysts also caution against excessive optimism. It will take longer than expected to make these reforms work, says economist Cheng Siwei, using the Chinese maxim "Bu pa man, zhi pa zhan" -- slowing down is not worrisome; a standstill is.

Three decades ago, the late Communist leader Chen Yun, a contemporary of Deng Xiaoping, likened the Chinese economy to a bird and the Chinese political system to a bird cage. While the cage may be enlarged to let the bird fly more freely, Chen argued, it must never be discarded.

Xi and his cohorts seem to agree on that

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0930 GMT (1730 HKT)
CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief, Jaime FlorCruz, remembers when a phone call from a student alerted him to the Tiananmen Square protest
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests or political reform are still censored in China.
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1801 GMT (0201 HKT)
CNN's Brian Stelter talks with CCTV correspondent Jim Spellman on how the Chinese media has covered MH370's mystery.
China's economy has bested many others in just the past 10 years.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 0602 GMT (1402 HKT)
In China, users of the "Life Black Box" website can set up final farewells to their friends in case they suddenly die.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 0532 GMT (1332 HKT)
A recent university study claims Chinese micro-blogging activity might not be as vibrant as expected.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Chinese art has been fetching some serious cash -- here's how we can elbow into the market
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0251 GMT (1051 HKT)
A Shanghainese collector paid $36 million for this tiny cup decorated with chickens.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 0657 GMT (1457 HKT)
Ben Richardson on corruption in China: a veil of secrecy shrouds the links between power and wealth.
China's economy is slowing and growth in 2014 could fall short of the government's official target, according to a CNNMoney survey of economists.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 1238 GMT (2038 HKT)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is the first foreigner to visit the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 0126 GMT (0926 HKT)
If the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 caused a rift in China-Malaysia relations, the two countries appear to have put it behind them.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0517 GMT (1317 HKT)
Martin Jacques argues that in the twenty-first century, China will challenge our perception of what it is to be modern.
A new survey of university students in China shows where they most want to work. What are the dream employers for Chinese students?
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
What are President Xi Jinping's greatest goals as he visits the EU headquarters in Brussels?
Last year, thousands of Chinese tourists flocked to Yellowstone National Park to view the mountains, the buffalo and Old Faithful.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1238 GMT (2038 HKT)
A senior Bloomberg News journalist quit his role earlier this month, saying the "mishandling" by his bosses of a story critical of China was behind his departure.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
"The aim is to let [families of MH370 passengers] express anger while keeping them restrained," says a Chinese official.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
U.S. President Barack Obama's secret weapon in China? Michelle.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
Private schools that employ humanistic pedagogy for young children are becoming popular in China. A look at the factors behind the boom and potential pitfalls.
ADVERTISEMENT