(Image: Xinhua News Agency)
The Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) ended a couple of weeks ago with flowers, flash lights, and hail from international experts, according to a news report published by the Xinhua News Agency. The ambitious yet still new leadership reassured the Chinese public with their commitment to deepening China’s reforms.
As usual, this pivotal political gathering for the Chinese nation again offered Western media an opportunity to analyze Chinese policies, to argue and to cast suspicions. However, what was added to the plate this time is confusion and bafflement. A BBC news article entitled China’s mysterious Third Plenumfocused on the next economic breakthrough reforms promised by the Chinese leadership by stating “the devil will be in the details as to how these reforms will be implemented. And those are lacking.” Another report from the Slate magazine simply said that “nobody knows” what the Communiqué of the Third Plenum “actually says or means”.
The subsequent Decision and its explanation seem to have answered these questions with a firm decision to abolish the “reeducation through labor” prison system, and an exciting perspective of loosening the One Child Policy by allowing couples to have maximum two children, as long as one of the spouses is an only child. While the news and analysis reported by Western media still show frustration and negativity, news in China show nothing but excitement, boosting the public’s confidence with passionate, boasting words from the government-issued document; yet there is little comprehensive in-depth analysis, let alone criticism or objections.
In contrast to the majority of Chinese media, who simply copy or are only allowed to use Xinhua News Agency’s wire news when reporting on such a big political conference, this event is truly a challenge for Western journalists. First and foremost is the highly political and ambiguous language, and then it is the system for policy implementation. The language used in the official document, including “decisive role” or “deepening reforms”, has numbed Chinese people’s ears for years, and these phrases can also be interpreted differently depending on the political context at the time. Facing policies issued by the central government, Chinese local governments are famously sluggish in coming up with implementation details, which often keep at bay policies that might be beneficial to the people and leave the society frustrated.
Given that hardly any challenging questions were asked in the Chinese public domain, any question marks regarding China’s political or economic policies casted by the Western media would be seen as negative. China has long been baffled with the Western attitude, claiming that the West is ‘wearing tinted spectacles’ whenever it is unhappy with the discussion coming from outside. Martin Jacques, the author of the book When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, said that we face a “cultural challenge” when it comes to discussing China’s political environment in an interview he gave to the Xinhua News Agency. Jacques stated that “Western countries look at China with their notions and so they do not know China at all’.” He said: “The misunderstanding of China is ‘the greatest intellectual challenge of this century’.”
However, China should look into how such “misunderstandings” are created. Besides the ambiguity conveyed by an array of official announcements and progressive promises in the Decision that signals the successful completion of the Third Plenum of the CPC, there are also alarming indications that could restrain Chinese public opinion even further. The Wall Street Journal reports that the new government of China sees the growing power of online media as a challenge, if not a threat to the stability of the Chinese society, especially because of the opportunities it provides for rapid dissemination of information. The leadership is also calling for a stronger legal framework for online media and more guidance for public opinion. These actions do not seem to be encouraging the fundamental mechanism for probing government transparency in China.
Without a clear understanding of the government policies and a higher degree of transparency, one could only hope that the promised reforms will go beyond their paper forms.