The Third Plenum — From the Outside, Looking In

By Bao Tong
2013-10-28
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Wang Gongquan speaks at a forum in Beijing, Dec. 29, 2010.
IMAGINECHINA

Another sensitive time is upon us, and tension is in the air.

Acquaintances will meet and greet each other, and ask for "news" of the third plenum, even though they know that there will be no "news" at all under the strict discipline of secrecy imposed by the Chinese Communist Party. But they still ask, anyway.

This is unsurprising. Third plenums [of National Party Congresses] have played an important role over the past three decades. First plenary sessions set the scene for transitions of Party power, while second plenary sessions are for the handover of the administration.

According to our Chinese characteristics, the departing leaders must use these handovers to make a report; there is no room for fresh blood or a new climate. So it's hard to find out if any changes are going to take place until we get to the third plenary session.

So can we make any predictions? Well, we can and we can't.

We can't, because it hasn't started yet, so we can't rule out certain variables. For example, during the third plenum of 1978, there was a wild card. Chen Yun, Tan Zhenlin, Hu Yaobang and co. insisted that the Tiananmen Incident of April 1976 be discussed, along with a series of other important issues left over from history. This put a spanner in the works for [then supreme leader] Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng, who had planned that the plenum should look to the the future, not become embroiled in settling the debts of history, and stick to discussing the economy. But the chaotic debates that ensued gave rise to an unexpected bonus, turning a dreary and ceremonial meeting into an expression of popular unity.

Such variables are very dramatic, and don't happen very often, so it's hard to predict them. But they are not without their tell-tale signs.

For example, whether or not the third plenum is in tune with the issues closest to the hearts of ordinary people. I think I can safely say that it probably isn't very much in tune with them. I base this on the fact that the plenum itself is kept secret from the public...On what basis is it kept secret? It must be for reasons that can't be told either. The best that we can possibly hope for is that it won't be harmful to us, and that we don't need to worry.

A lot of people want to know if it will be a "success." I think this is knowable. The problem is, what constitutes a "success?" There are two answers to this that are currently floating around. One is that success means the suppression of any different opinions and the achieving of subjective expectations. The other believes that success means achieving a consensus on how to deal with the difficult problems of the day. The former is sophistry; the latter good social sense.

According to the former, it is necessary to launch an anti-rumor campaign to clean up the Internet, so as to create a unified platform for discussion, whereas the latter view regards different opinions as valuable and priceless and naturally worthy of protection. So we can get a broad idea of the general direction the plenum will take from the attitude to different opinions in the run-up to it.

As a citizen, of course I concern myself with the protection of civil rights, and with whether or not those who have already violated those rights with official power will be locked in a cage. [But] Wang Gongquan, an advocate of the "New Citizens' Rights Movement," which espouses the right of citizens to oversee the exercise of government power, was recently formally arrested. For as long as he remains behind bars on trumped-up charges, then I don't hold out any hope at all that the dream of "keeping power in a cage" will become a reality.

Similarly, I have no hope at all that the dream of the "fight against corruption" will become a reality for as long as Xu Zhiyong, who called on our leaders to reveal their assets, remains in jail.

And it's hard to believe in the dream of rule of law in China for as long as the cases against [Beijing airport bomber] Ji Zhongxing, [street vendor] Xia Junfeng and...other citizens are upheld.

Nor is it likely that the third plenum will be able to provide the balancing point from which internal policy concerns and external forces may be directed.

China has a lot of major problems, including total pollution of our territory, an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor, acute ethnic conflicts and massive problems left over from history. But the leadership doesn't need to shoulder responsibility for any of them.

The responsibility of the current leadership should be to say goodbye to the past, and to investigate possible new routes to take. If the new administration wishes to bind itself to the old system, then that's another matter.

The above views are all fairly superficial. We will have to wait until the meeting is over to find out how things were really run.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political aide to the late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.