It is risky to make predictions about China. Those who had once foretold its “coming collapse” ended up looking silly. But it is possible now to suggest that Xi Jinping’s manifesto for reform may make or unmake China in the near future. The full text of his reform blueprint, which was approved at the third plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee earlier this month, is now available. There can be no doubt that it is the boldest manifesto that the party has had since Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 blueprint for the “socialist market economy”. It is also known now that Mr Xi, the new party boss, himself led the 60-member team that drafted the manifesto. It shows that he now has the power to push his agenda within the party. But whether he will also have the glory remains to be seen, for Mr Xi faces challenges that Deng’s brand new move did not have to contend with. Giving the market a “decisive role” in the allocation of resources such as water, oil, natural gas, electricity and transport may not be Mr Xi’s biggest challenge. The manifesto’s promise to reform the state-owned enterprises is at best half-hearted. But Mr Xi has opened the gates to these firms wider for the private sector.
However, the boldest of Mr Xi’s agenda relates to the rural economy and the peasants. The manifesto promises to reform the hukou or household registration system that denies rural migrants living in cities some basic rights and access to urban welfare schemes. Although somewhat unclear, the manifesto’s promise to reform land ownership rights in villages can usher in unprecedented changes in the rural economy and agrarian relations. But the reforms in these two areas may prove to be the toughest tests of Mr Xi’s power and his ability to push his agenda. The opening up of the rural economy and empowering the peasants with rights to buy and sell land will require the dismantling of powerful vested interests in the Chinese countryside. Most of these rural centres of power derive their strength from the party itself. Fighting these elements will thus involve a churning within the party. And this is where Mr Xi may face the stiffest resistance to his plans. He may have earned the goodwill of large sections of people with the manifesto’s promises to relax the one-child policy and to abolish the dreaded “re-education through labour” camps. Mr Xi’s test may have just begun.