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Milestones of reform: 30 years of 3rd Plenums
Latest Updated at 2008-November-10 10:15:08

The Third Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of China's Communist Party (CPC)聽was held in Beijing from October 9 to 12, 2008. It is the seventh third plenary session since China's reform and opening up started in 1978. The theme of this year's meeting is countryside reform.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of China's reform and opening up and the meeting is expected to follow the tradition of previous third plenums by introducing significant reforms, in this case focusing on building a new socialist countryside.

Over the past 30 years, every third plenary session of the CPC Central Committee has taken significant decisions concerning economic development and structural reform. Several historic decisions that have fundamentally altered China's development path were taken at these sessions.

"Every plenary session is important,"Ye Duchu, a Party construction expert in the Party School of the CPC Central Committee told Outlook Weekly. "They all help the Party reach a common understanding, formulate theory and define strategy."

According to Ye, after the 14th National Congress of the CPC, the first two plenary sessions of each CPC Central Committee mainly focused on personnel changes, while the third sessions formulated policy and revealed the collective thinking of the leadership.

Zhang Liqun, a research fellow at the Development Research Center of the State Council, said that over the past 30 years, development has been the CPC's top priority. A study of the themes of the each third plenary session shows the Party has been steadily improving its understanding of the modern economy, economic structural reform, and development models, and has adjusted its policies accordingly.

Deng Xiaoping at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, 1978. []

According to Professor Chang Xiuze of the Macroeconomic Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, the third plenary sessions of the 11th, 12th, 14th and 16th CPC Central Committees all played a key role in China's structural economic reforms. They mark four stages of structural reform: the start-up stage, the implementation stage, construction of the framework of a socialist market economy, and full implementation of the socialist market economy.

The following is an outline of the development path laid down by the CPC Central Committee at successive third plenary sessions.

The Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee: The historic turning point

This session, held in Beijing from December 18 to 22, 1978, was a turning point in the history of both the Party and China. The session criticized the principle of "two whatevers" ("we will resolutely defend whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave"), while approving a complete and accurate study of Mao Zedong Thought. It held a key discussion on the theme "Practice is the sole criterion for testing truth"; established the watchwords of emancipating the mind, seeking truth from facts, and uniting to face the future; it rectified erroneous slogans and shifted the emphases to socialist modernization and the policy of reform and opening up; issued decisions on promoting agricultural development and set the goals of strengthening socialist democracy and improving the socialist legal system; it also re-evaluated some former State and Party leaders. The session decided to set up the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

After the meeting, the second generation of Party leaders formed around Deng Xiaoping. The meeting marked China's entry into a new era of socialist modernization and construction.

Researchers agree that this meeting was a landmark in China's history, lifting the curtain on the period of reform and opening up.

In the following six years, China embarked on major economic structural reforms. The reform started in the countryside with the historic household land-contracting system in Xiaogang Village in south China's Anhui Province. At the same time, industrial and commercial enterprises in the cities also experimented with reforms that gave them greater autonomy in decision-making. "In those days, the whole system was still dominated by the planned economy and the market economy was just beginning to sprout,"said Chang, adding that the key feature of the reforms in the early period was to shrug off the shackles of the planned economy and explore a brand new system.

Yan Jinchang, one of the first farmers conducting the historic household land-contracting system in Xiaogang Village of Anhui Province.

The Third Plenary Session of the 12th CPC Central Committee: Reform moves from the countryside to the cities

The session opened on October 20, 1984. It unanimously passed the Decision on Economic Structural Reform. The Decision, theoretically based on a Sinicized version of Marxism, recognized the necessity and urgency of speeding up urban economic reforms and set out the nature, direction and goals of the reforms, as well as basic polices required to implement them. It also clarified some contentious theoretical issues regarding the concepts of the commodity economy and the law of value.

"The meeting marked the spreading of reforms from rural areas to the cities, to the whole economy. China's reform passed into its second stage,"said Chang. Before the meeting, the CPC Central Committee carried out extensive research and investigation. For the first time, it was clearly stated that China's socialist economy was not a planned economy per se, but a planned commodity economy based on public ownership. That was a major breakthrough in Marxist Political Economy under the circumstances, and at that time.

The Third Plenary Session of the 13th CPC Central Committee: Clearing the way for further reform

Held from September 26 to 30, 1988, this meeting approved two documents 鈥 the Primary Work Plan on Price and Wage System Reform, and the Notice on Strengthening and Improving Ideological and Political Work in Enterprises.

At the time China was at a transition point between two economic systems and was facing a chaotic economic situation and surging prices. In order to deepen reform and opening up, the meeting affirmed guidelines on improving the economic environment, rectifying the economic structure and furthering overall reform. It also set out the future direction of reform and reconstruction.

The Third Plenary Session of the 14th CPC Central Committee: Outlining the framework of a socialist market economy

Held from November 11 to 14, 1993, this meeting passed the Decision on Issues of Building a Socialist Market Economy. The meeting pointed out that a socialist market economy system was integrated with a basically socialist system. In such a system, the market plays a fundamental role in resource allocation within the context of State macro-adjustment and control. The Decision also required State-owned enterprises (SOEs) to reform their operations, establish modern enterprise mechanisms which clearly define property rights, separate ownership from day-to-day management and adopt scientific management methods.

Deng Xiaoping's inspection tour of south China in 1992 was a major turning point of China's reform and opening up.

According to Chang Xiuze, Deng Xiaoping's inspection tour of south China in 1992 was a major turning point. The 14th National Congress of the CPC clearly pointed out that a socialist economy is a market economy based on public ownership. For the first time, China's economic reforms had a definite goal 鈥 to establish socialist market economy.

The third plenary session elaborated eight reform categories: enterprise reform, market system construction, macro-adjustment and control systems, income distribution and social security reform, rural reform, opening up, science and technology reform and legal system construction. The "eight pillars"were to uphold the entire socialist market economy system.

The Decision defined a roadmap for the construction of a socialist market economy and took economic reforms to a deeper level.

According to Chang, the construction of the framework of a socialist market economy started in October 1992, and lasted a decade to 2002.

The Third Plenary Session of the 15th CPC Central Committee: Build a socialist new countryside

Held from October 12 to 14, 1998, this session approved the Decision on Important Issues of Agriculture and Countryside Work and set the goal of building a socialist new countryside by 2010.

The plenum summed up the achievements and experiences of reforms since 1978, outlined agricultural and rural development goals, and issued strategies and policies on economic, political and cultural construction in rural areas.

Under the circumstances of rapid industrialization and urbanization, the imbalances in development had widened the urban-rural gap. The Decision reflected the Party's understanding of the need to strengthen rural reform and development.

The Third Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee: New goals, new beginning

The Decision on Issues of Completing the Construction of a Market Economy approved by the Third Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee (from October 11 to 14, 2003) mapped out reform and development for the next 10 years. It displayed a scientific outlook on development and put forward new ideas and measures for completing the construction of a socialist market economy. The scientific outlook on development and the "five balances" (balancing urban and rural development, development among regions, economic and social development, man and nature, and domestic development and opening up to the outside world) embodied several significant innovations and accelerated the pace of change in China.

"The most important change was to shift the focus to achieving a balance of social interests," noticed Chang. "Unlike previous reforms, this plenum emphasized people and overall social development."

The plenum clarified that public ownership consists not only of state-owned enterprises, but also includes enterprises with diversified ownership, including joint stock companies. It also encouraged non-public economic entities to take part in any lawful economic activity.

As China enter the fourth stage of its reforms 鈥 the completion of the construction of a socialist market economy, the nation started to build a modern property rights system, and began to reform government administration.

The plenum also emphasized the need for sustainable development.

A look forward to the Third Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee

The theme of the upcoming Third Plenary Session is rural reform and development. The issues of agriculture, the countryside, and farmers are of great significance given China's huge population. One of the goals of urbanization is to assist with rural development and find solutions to rural issues through industrialization, said Zhang Liqun.

The theme of the upcoming Third Plenary Session is rural reform and development.

The rural economy has undergone huge changes in the past 30 years. The net income of farmers reached 4,140 yuan (US$606) per capita, almost 30 times the 1978 figure. The numbers living in absolute poverty fell from 250 million to 15 million. Grain output has increased from 300 billion to 500 billion kilograms since reform and opening up. The past 30 years shows a clear track record of continual rural reform.

But there are still major problems and difficulties, such as imbalances between rural and urban areas, between regions, and between economic and social development. The surge in prices that started last year, falling farm profits resulting from the rising cost of agricultural inputs, as well as inappropriate policies, all stand in the way of balanced economic and social development.

"The key to building a well-off society lies in the rural areas," noted Chang.

Ye Duchu suggested people should read between the lines of the work report submitted to the plenum and pay attention to the consultation process, as well as the Decision on Several Important Issues of Propelling Rural Reform and Development, submitted by the Political Bureau. "The plenum will be more important than people expect," he said.

Editor: Yan

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