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
November 9, 2013 -- Updated 0528 GMT (1328 HKT)
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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
ADVERTISEMENT