Beijing taps Shenzhen, again

The ninth meeting of the Central Committee for Comprehensively Deepening Reform (CCCDR) was held on Wednesday. Established as part of the massive party-state restructuring launched in March 2018, Trivium China calls it “the most important policymaking body in the land.” That’s right, more important than even the Politburo Standing Committee.

The meeting has approved 11 documents, most of which you would need a Western-Chinese political dictionary to understand. The one that stood out for us was No. 10: “Supporting Shenzhen to become a pilot demonstration area for socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

We know this is important because, well, Shenzhen is already a pilot demonstration area for socialism with Chinese characteristics. It has been since the president’s father, the late Xi Zhongxun, was dispatched to Guangdong in 1978 to launch what became known as the Reform and Opening era. What is missing from the CCCDR document’s statement is the word, “Again.” 

Although Beijing, Shanghai and Qingdao were also mentioned during the meeting, according to local media, only Shenzhen was put into the spotlight and warranted a place among the 11 documents.  

In effect, the meeting has reemphasized the importance of Shenzhen in pushing forward reforms that the rest of the country cannot be trusted with just yet. Looking at what is being said by local media, it seems that Beijing has given the city a seal of approval to “deeply execute” its innovation-driven growth strategy. In Chinese: Shenzhen will require unswerving determination to follow the path of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In English: Shenzhen must now get on with the hard stuff by persisting along the path of Reform and Opening.

This does not mean that Shenzhen now has carte blanche to introduce legal and political reforms that might make it as ungovernable one day as Hong Kong has become. Local media mentioned only that Shenzhen is expected to pursue “high-quality development and seize the unprecedent opportunity of GBA construction to set an exemplary model for other cities in the modern socialist country”. But it hints at an accelerated process of testing more advanced reforms that may well change how the city – and the GBA – is governed.

Shenzhen’s track record at pushing the boundaries of reform is well documented. Since coming to power, President Xi has visited twice, in 2014 and 2018, to personally put his tick mark on its report card. But this CCCDR document is on another level. Tan Gang, vice president of the Shenzhen Socialism Academy, said in an interview with the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily that the approval of the document means Shenzhen’s role as a pilot demonstration area has been included in the “top-level design framework of the Central Government”. It’s not about the Xi family legacy, in other words. It’s much bigger than that. Everyone needs to get in line behind it. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, President Xi was quoted as saying that deepening overall reform is an important manifestation of the Party’s commitment to remaining true to its original aspiration and shouldering its founding mission. Translation: Full steam ahead.

As the reform process goes deeper, it will be more necessary to shoulder responsibilities, take swift but steady steps, and forge ahead without taking a break, the president said. Translation: Full steam ahead, no matter the criticism from the Left.

The document has sparked heated discussions in Shenzhen’s local press – or as close as mainland media are allowed to get to heated discussions, at least. Analysts say that being a demonstration area, Shenzhen needs to blaze a new trail for modern city-building, featuring innovation-driven high-quality development that is replicable for the rest of China. (Yes, that really is how heated the debate got.)

To achieve this goal, the city needs to continue to play a “model role” in deepening Reform and widening the Opening process with the backdrop of the Belt and Road Initiative, Tan said. He urged Shenzhen to continue piloting innovation-driven development and enhance its role as a core city in the development of the Greater Bay Area.

What comes next? Legal and political reform? It’s too soon to say. But one thing is clear: Shenzhen is going to be blazing a new trail again for China, right here in the GBA, very soon.

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