China's Risky Reforms

Why Beijing Has Reason to Worry

Members of the new Politburo Standing Committee wave to the press in Beijing, November 2012. (Carlos Barria / Courtesy Reuters)

Almost three months after the Third Plenum of China’s 18th Party Congress, the world is still trying to divine the country’s political future. The plenum communiqué, a road map for planned reforms over the next few years, raised as many questions as it answered. Chief among them: How will China’s economy, its political system, and its society interact in the wake of new reforms -- in harmony or with increasing friction?

As many commentators have pointed out, one major outcome of the meeting was the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to make market mechanisms “decisive” in the economy. The primary aim of such reforms, of course, is to prolong party rule. Since crushing the citizen and student movements of the 1980s -- culminating in the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square -- the CCP has depended on economic growth to ensure stability. To guarantee the party’s continued staying power, its leaders must have realized that it was time for a new growth model. But they must surely have also understood how much is at stake: The reform could dislocate large swaths of society, including migrant laborers, university graduates, and disgruntled civil servants. Government control of the economy has been a central pillar of its political authority; liberalizing China’s volatile market will require the party to walk a thin and perilous line.

Accordingly, the decision to free up China’s economy came alongside the announcement of a new “state security committee” -- a domestic and foreign security organization that will coordinate and oversee China’s national security affairs in ways comparable to the U.S. National Security Council. Headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping, the committee represents a further consolidation of power in the hands of China’s security sector and Xi himself. The move can only mean that Beijing is planning for a host of possible crises related to potential socioeconomic ills and ethnic tensions by bolstering its power to crack down on popular dissent.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis