In November 2013, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its much-anticipated Third Plenum of its 18th Congress. Third Plenums, which are usually held a year after a party congress, have generally been used to set the policy agenda for a new administration. More than 30 years ago, Deng Xiaoping famously launched his groundbreaking economic reforms at the Third Plenum of the party’s 11th Congress -- a meeting that changed the trajectory of China and, thereby, the world. Coming just a year after China’s latest leadership transition, the November Plenum offered the most concrete look at how the country’s top leader, General Secretary Xi Jinping, intends to lead.
Most analysts have focused on the meeting’s wide-ranging economic reform agenda. No wonder; the announced economic changes are more sweeping than most people expected and, if implemented, could usher in yet another run of sustained economic growth. The reforms include allowing private ownership stakes in state companies, reducing regulatory hurdles for commercial enterprises, handing rural residents greater control over their land, liberalizing the financial sector, and much more.
Yet even as the world has applauded the economic reforms, it has criticized China’s new leadership for omitting much-hoped-for political reforms from its agenda. Some critics have pointed out, correctly, that the party’s leadership has actually strengthened its grip on power. Media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and The Economist have characterized the development as essentially the party’s turning right on economics and left on politics. But such views are misplaced.
The plenum did launch significant and, in some cases, unprecedented political reforms that will fundamentally alter how the world’s largest nation is governed. They include re-engineering the relationship between central and local authorities and restructuring the party’s disciplinary inspection regime and the state’s legal system. The plenum also resulted in the most significant reorganization of the party’s decision-making structures in the history of the People’s Republic.
For centuries, one of imperial China’s most vexing political