Reading between the lines

The plainclothes policemen guard in front of Tiananmen Gate outside the Great Hall of the People where the Communist Party's 205-member Central Committee gathered for its third annual plenum on 12 November 2013 in Beijing, China The Third Plenum has produced a 5,000-word communique, said to be a "blueprint" for reforms

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The Communist Party has just concluded a key policy meeting. The Third Plenum of the party's 18th Central Committee brought together close to 400 of the country's most powerful officials for four days of intense deliberation.

This has produced a 5,000-word communique, touted as a "blueprint" for "comprehensive reforms" in the years ahead. State television carried a 10-minute report in which the communique was read out in its entirety.

In keeping with recent rhetoric, the word "reform" made its appearance 59 times. But there was little detail on what shape and thrust that reform would take; and no mention of the course of implementation. These vagaries are more than enough to keep journalists, academics and even officials themselves occupied for a good while yet.

Already, confusion over how exactly to assess the issue of land reform has triggered multiple interpretations and furious debate. Heading into the Third Plenum, expectations were high that the meeting would yield plans to give Chinese farmers greater rights over the use of their land.

For those who expected something concrete from the Third Plenum, they have received just two sentences in the communique that refer directly to this subject: first, "to establish a unified land market in cities and the countryside"; and second, "to give farmers more property rights".

word cloud The theme of deepening reform is reflected in a word cloud of the final communique
Debate

Different media outlets are already giving their own interpretations. Agence-France Presse news agency promptly reported that China will "push forward land reform and give farmers more property rights". Reuters news agency simply quoted in full the two sentences from the official release, while the Associated Press news agency took a more downbeat line, saying the meeting had failed to make commitments on land reform, concluding that the issue had been put on the backburner for now.

Meanwhile, Chinese media have been equally busy. News portal website Sina.com ran a report quoting economists who chose to interpret the phrase "a unified land market" as meaning farmers being allowed to sell land directly on the market. And, therefore, that the plenum had produced the much-anticipated land reform after all.

A farmer walks through a corn field near a replica of the Eiffel Tower at the Tianducheng development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, in this 1 August 2013 file photo There have been different interpretations on whether - and how - the meeting tackled land reform

However, other reports, some even appearing on the same Sina website, seem to contradict this. They argue that the same words were used in the Third Plenum of the previous Central Committee five years ago. The only difference, they say, is the addition back then of the qualifier "gradually"; as in "to gradually establish a unified land market in cities and the countryside".

The same pundits have stressed that China has in fact undergone two land reforms since the 1960s. But vitally, a land management law which was drafted in 2008 has yet to be passed by nervous lawmakers. For the sceptical, they blame lack of progress on official reluctance to change anything that might damage vested interests or test the party's credibility amongst the hundreds of millions of farmers. For these sceptics, there's little doubt that current leaders, whatever they claim, will launch nothing drastic when it comes to reforming land rights in China.

The fact is, no one - at least no one who might be prepared to talk - knows whether anything has changed in the governance of the world's number two economy. For Chinese journalists who have covered this headline event over the last few days, the frenzied dissection of the communique borders on the absurd. Some have taken to their microblogs to bemoan the ridiculousness of analysis in the absence of fact - with one exclaiming at the insanity of a 5,000-word document generating 50,000-word analyses within hours of its release.

Much may have changed. Or not. But one thing is constant - party rhetoric remains as much in fashion as ever. It took years before China or the world saw the significance of the Third Plenum in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping sent China hurtling down the path of Reform and Opening Up.

It might take as long before anyone can appreciate whether this latest Third Plenum has brought China any closer to much-touted reforms. Until then, all anyone can do is read between the lines of what little the party chooses to reveal.

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