Reasons for optimism over China plans

File photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping
Image caption Mr Xi should not expect everything to go according to plan

It's been just over a week since Chinese officials wrapped up a four-day conclave behind closed doors. For most China-watchers, the days after are usually devoted to checking out state-owned media for more information shedding light on new policies.

In the last week, for those scouring the press, it's been a swing from scepticism to cautious hope.

The communiqué released immediately after the meeting ranked high on pledges but low on detail. It was greeted with every emotion, from a determined optimism from some quarters, to a no-less determined derision in others.

However, a 20-page document released three days after that has swung the mood back in favour of the optimists, who are already talking of the legacy of the administration under President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Their plans for reform, say these optimists, are no less momentous than those launched by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It is certainly remarkable in detail, laying out 60 reform goals to transform both the economic and social face of China in the decade ahead. No less than party chief and president, Xi Jinping, has stepped in to explain these goals, in editorials released by Xinhua news agency. Given the scale and depth of the overhaul planned, it is certainly going to need every ounce of Mr Xi's personal weight and commitment.

'Tough days ahead'

In 1978, when the inimitable Deng Xiaoping was pushing through vital economic reforms, he had to contend with resistance from party conservatives who saw foreign investment as a prelude to an invasion of foreign capitalists. Mr Deng's bugbear then was turgid ideology rooted in revolution. For Mr Xi, his nemesis could be every individual or groups of individuals who have something to lose in the event of sweeping change.

Image caption Part of the plan includes the equal treatment of China's migrant workers in urban areas

Already, state-owned tabloid, the Global Times, has warned of tough days ahead, with reforms proposed encroaching upon vested interests. Specifically, plans to skim the fat off the gargantuan State-Owned Enterprises who have long dominated the Chinese economy.

New plans require them to pay 30% of profits to the government. Under existing arrangements, they are apparently required to hand in 5% to 20% in dividends. But many are loath to cede even that much to the central government.

Close ties to the same government and decades of unchallenged monopoly have put these behemoths above laws that might apply to smaller players. What are the chances of compliance now, when even more payment is at stake?

Another area that's been heralded as radical is the promise of "fully" equal treatment of migrant workers in urban areas, in counties and smaller cities. Should it succeed, this would transform the face of China, as tens of millions of farmers cash in on the value of their land and invest in new lives and businesses in cities.

But this would mean re-allocating finite health care, pension and education resources. If someone gains, someone else has to lose, even if it's just in the immediate term. Convincing the urban middle-class to accept a decline in benefits for the sake of reform might be asking a little bit much in the way of altruism.

Clear break

A dose of reality: this 20-page, 20,000-word plan, is precisely that - a plan. And the devil is as much in the detail as in the implementation.

Mr Xi and his colleagues can expect to face resistance from all levels - from local governments to state enterprises, as well as the bureaucracies that oversee them. The central government may have its directives, but it's local governments who will find their own ways to meet these directives.

A few provinces and cities have already announced how they intend to carry out these plans for reform. Eastern Anhui province, which has long struggled with debilitating poverty for example, is going its own way, with experiments allowing farmers to mortgage or transfer control of their land.

Image caption It is not clear what China will be like in a decade

It's no wonder Mr Xi and his colleagues have given themselves until 2020 before they can expect to see any positive results. No one can know what China will be like in 10 years. But perhaps what one can know right now is that the current leadership intends to make a clear break from the recent past.

In the lead up to the 18th party congress in November last year, all the talk was on the increasingly faceless authority of Chinese leaders. Mr Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, put an almost obsessive emphasis on collective decision-making. It seemed that Chinese leadership post-Mao and Deng had become a collective matter.

If nothing else, the 60-point plan confirms that Mr Xi does not intend to preside over another "lost decade"'. The relative robustness of his message and the reach of proposed change points to a man very much in charge just eight months into officially taking over as president. And a man who knows that for China, it's either reform, or go under.