UNCERTAIN AT THE TOP - Chinaâ€™s contradictory wish-list of reforms Chinese politics has been on a roller-coaster in the past week. First, Chinese sources let the media know that the 22,000-word communiquÃ© at the end of the third plenum of the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party would announce the long-awaited road map for the next phase of Chinaâ€™s reforms. Up to now, Xi Jinpingâ€™s leadership had been hard to define, but this document would finally provide the clear, detailed information that would define what his term at the head of Chinaâ€™s party-state would be about. Then, last Tuesday, the announcement came, and it was a damp squib: a vague and contradictory wish-list of reforms with no real sense of how to achieve them. But then, on Friday, two announcements came that spelled important changes in the Chinese political system: the effective end of the â€œone-childâ€ policy, and the abolition of the system of â€œreform through labourâ€ that led to the notorious laogai labour camp system. The Plenum communiquÃ© provided plenty of fodder for China-watchers. The statement that China would allow markets to take a â€œdecisiveâ€ role in the allocation of resources suggests a speeding up of economic reforms in a whole variety of areas. For instance, rural land is still state-owned. By allowing farmers to own their own land and develop it, a whole new element of growth may be opened up in the countryside. Another clearly-stated intention was to set up a new national security bureau, although it was not clear whether this was something along the lines of Americaâ€™s National Security Council, or something more dedicated to breaking up internal dissent. Also provoking discussion was the decision to set up a small group to steer reforms. How would this group operate? Which members of the top seven figures in Chinese politics, the standing committee of the politburo, will actually be on this committee? There has been plenty of discussion in the media outside China (along with some fairly acid comment on Weibo, Chinaâ€™s Twitter), but little hard information. For this discussion could not conceal a wider reality: the document gave little real indication of policy direction and even contradicted itself in certain places. The communiquÃ© suggests both that free markets will be given more leeway to operate in China, but also that the large state-owned enterprise sector will continue to play a central role in the economy. More seriously, the report gave little clues on promised reforms in areas such as liberalization of financial services or reform of the banking sector. Most clearly absent was any sense of political reform in a more liberal direction. In recent years, Chinese officials have spoken frequently of rule of law as a core value, yet it has also been made clear that there is no prospect of a judicial system being established that can override the ultimate will of the party. Since Xi Jinping became general secretary, Chinaâ€™s media have felt an increasingly chilly wind as they are reminded that even Chinaâ€™s increasingly commercialized broadcasters and newspapers must stay away from certain topics. So, any serious investigation of the extraordinary fall of Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing city, or querying of the motives of Chinaâ€™s top leaders, is out of the question. There has been a flurry of anti-corruption campaigns in China in the past few months, as officials are told to serve no more than â€œone soup and four dishesâ€ at any meal. Yet, these changes in political tone, though real, serve to consolidate the partyâ€™s rule, not to liberalize or pluralize it. So on Wednesday morning, as the world analysed the communiquÃ©, the verdict was that it was something of a damp squib. However, nothing could have been further from the reaction just two days later when the Chinese government announced changes in two of the policies that have defined its rule for decades. For years, China has operated a â€œone childâ€ policy that has been the largest demographic experiment ever conducted in history. For years, more and more exceptions have been permitted, particularly for rural families. But now, it has been announced that any parents who are themselves only children may now have two children. This applies to some 75 per cent of Chinese, meaning that the policy is effectively at an end. The change in policy is a recognition of a particular reality: China is getting old very quickly. By 2050, a quarter of the population will be over 65, meaning that there will be many fewer younger Chinese workers to support a huge population of elders who need pensions and healthcare. Many of the other emergent economies in the world, such as Turkey and Iran, have young populations which will not age so quickly. China knows it has to deal with the danger that it will get old before it gets rich. The abolition of Chinaâ€™s system of â€œreform through labourâ€ is also significant, as it has been described by the authorities as part of their desire to â€œimprove human rights and judicial proceduresâ€. As part of this move, the government also announced a reduction in the use of the death penalty (China currently executes more people than any other country). However, the partyâ€™s determination to hold on to its monopoly on rule means that arbitrary arrests, particularly by corrupt and hard-to-control local officials, will continue to be a constant in China for years to come. What does this array of changes mean? The confused nature of the communiquÃ© suggests that there is still uncertainty at the top of government. The direction of Chinese politics has been very clear for two decades: economic reform with minimal political liberalization. Yet, within the leadership, there are very clear differences of emphasis. Some stress economic reform and liberalization of markets as the top priority. They see the need for China to turn from export-oriented growth toward growth based on much greater domestic consumption, particularly by Chinaâ€™s growing urban middle class (some 300 million people, and rising). Others see that Chinaâ€™s prosperity has been accompanied by growing inequality and that if this is not dealt with, then social unrest may rise. Since 2009, rural pensions and a basic healthcare scheme have been political priorities for the government, and social welfare is one of the areas that the post-plenum communiquÃ© stressed as being of crucial importance. But the proposed reforms show weakness in one particular area: they fail to recognize how far China now has to operate in conjunction with the outside world. Making Chinaâ€™s economy more open is essential, and is the stated aim of the government: yet, to do so also makes China more vulnerable to fluctuations in the global economy. China needs to create stability for trade and diplomacy by integrating itself into the wider Asian regional community, yet its confused and contradictory signals to its neighbours have encouraged the sense that China does not itself understand what its foreign policy is supposed to achieve. Perhaps the most important consequence of Chinaâ€™s immense growth in the past ten years is that its domestic policy is much more tied up with events in the rest of the world than was true twenty or even ten years ago. The problem is that the Chinese Communist Partyâ€™s latest roadmap suggests that they understand very well what the problems before them are, but are still unable to articulate clearly what they think the solutions might be. The author is professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University and has written Chinaâ€™s War with Japan, 1937-1945 Uncertain at the top ******************************************************************** This article does highlight the woolly headed enunciation that instead of answering the problems, is more on the esoteric and on a perplexing plane. Something like the Bengali ditty: If jadi, is hoi, but kintu, not noi, what mane ki!