The Third Plenum and Document No.9

November 28, 2013 by Vaughan Winterbottom

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Third Plenum communiqué was not the most significant document to have emerged from the bowels of Zhongnanhai this year. That honour goes to the innocuously named ‘Document No.9’.

It’s fair to say that policy sessions of authoritarian regimes are not typical media fodder. But this month’s Third Plenum of the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China was different. Coverage of the meet – and of the vague communiqué it produced (see the Chinese here, the English here) – was widespread. Media with traditionally strong China-reporting outfits jostled for page views alongside a host of newcomers. Even Buzzfeed, a website better known celebrity gifs and an unbridled feline fetish, joined in the analytical free-for-all (see here, and here).

It is against this backdrop that we should see ‘Document No. 9’ – although in truth we were never really supposed to see it at all. Leaked in August just before the (show) trial of Bo Xilai got underway, the document was originally issued in April and circulated internally by the General Office of the CCP Central Committee. Mingjing Magazine, a Chinese-language magazine based in the US, obtained and printed the full text of the document in September. Chinafile published a full English translation on 8 November, the day the Third Plenum convened.

While the Chinese government is yet to officially comment on the provenance of the document, analysts say it bears “the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping.”

‘Document No. 9’ gives us a much better idea of the direction the new leadership is heading than does the Third Plenum communiqué. In it, the authors identify seven threats in the ‘fierce’ struggle to preserve the party’s grip on power. Constitutionalism, ‘universal values’ (read: Western democratic ideals), freedom of the press and civil society are all targeted.

Broadly speaking, the documents suggests that party leaders are taking challenges to the legitimacy of CCP rule more seriously than at any time in recent memory. In many ways, it signals a return to the mass-line politics that characterized the Maoist era in China, and makes abundantly clear that the party will not tolerate competition in the ideological sphere.

It didn’t always look like Xi Jinping’s administration would be reinvigorating the old authoritarian model. Around the time of the 18th Party Congress in November last year, there was hope among the party’s liberal faction that the incoming leadership would embrace political reform and show greater deference to the constitution, over which the Communist Party claims sole power of interpretation.

In a series of statements published by the Economic Observer in the lead-up to the congress, Hu Deping, son of the late Communist Party general secretary and reformer Hu Yaobang, noted that “it is an objective fact that the power of the party and the government is interfering with the judicial [system] and many current laws and regulations are not in compliance with the spirit and requirements of the constitution.”

Hu Deping’s comments came on the back of debate among Chinese intellectuals over the past few years about the nature of ‘universal values,’ and their applicability in the context of a ‘China model.’ A similar debate raged for much of the 1980’s, ending only with the 1989 crackdown on the Tian’anmen Square protests, which were triggered by Hu Yaobang’s death.

This year, the circulation of Document No. 9 sent a strong signal that the millennial debate on the universal versus Chinese values was over. The New Left emerged victorious over the Liberal faction within the party. The New Left rejoiced – despite their former star, Bo Xilai, now languishing in jail for life – while Liberals buried their heads in the sand. The last time Hu Deping made news he was battling anonymous allegations that he kept secret a luxury home in a leafy Beijing suburb, while his siblings stared down accusations of corruption.

So what can we take away from the Third Plenum in light of Document No. 9 and the victory of the New Left? This month’s communiqué outlines a slow-but-sure ramping up of right-leaning economic policies. More investment in state-owned enterprises, rural land reform, interest rate and capital account liberalization and “a more decisive role for the market in allocating resources” all aim to shore up economic growth.

Economic growth is a key source of the communist party’s claims to legitimacy. But Document No. 9 tells us that the party views ideological legitimacy as increasingly important. In this manner, the Third Plenum communiqué and Document No. 9 send mixed messages: Xi Jinping is signalling to the left on social issues while turning to the right on the economy.

The communiqué’s focus on wealth-creation does little to tackle the social tensions that have arisen in the 35-odd years of opening up and reform. Indeed Document No. 9 suggests that rather than tackle social tensions, Xi’s administration will attempt to suppress them with mass-line tactics reminiscent of the Maoist era.

This year has already witnessed a spate of crackdowns on those perceived to be threatening to the party’s control of the ideological sphere. University staff have been fired and suspended for writing about constitutional political reform. Human Rights Watch reported that in the period February through August, 55 civil society activists had been arbitrarily detained by the government, including 18 from the New Citizens’ Movement, a social campaign to promote civil society, the rule of law and public disclosure of officials’ assets.

Foreign journalists have encountered increasing difficulties renewing visas, and the government has shown no qualms about blocking Western news websites that run stories on the hidden wealth of the Chinese elite. The clampdown on freedom of speech on Weibo, China’s twitter equivalent, continues. On 9 September the government introduced tough new ‘rumour laws’ carrying a maximum three years’ prison sentence if untrue posts are visited by 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times.

These crackdowns have all been in areas that fall within the “false ideological trends, position, and activities” of Document No.9. Xi’s administration is counting on such stop-gap measures to suppress social unrest and stifle the party’s ideological competition. The tactic only has a chance of working if the economy remains strong – and this was certainly on the minds of writers of the Third Plenum communiqué.

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