China Just Announced … Something

Paramilitary policemen patrol outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2013.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

China’s ruling party completed a major leadership conference (the “third plenum”) on Tuesday and ended it with some major announcement. Naturally the Western press is full of analysis. Unfortunately, nobody knows what the announcement actually says or means.

As a sign of the confusion, the Financial Times went with the headline “China’s Pledge of Big Reforms Cements Era of Market Forces,” but they also have an article about how “European and US equities are retreating after inheriting a soft Asian session during which China-based stocks stumbled in response to a lack of detail on the country’s economic reforms.”

And, yes, the link I quoted goes back to their original article about how big the reforms are.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has a picture of China’s leadership standing in front of an enormous hammer and sickle with the headline “Chinese Leader Gets More Sway on the Economy and Security.”

The Wall Street Journal doesn’t even attempt to characterize what the plenum said about the economy, focusing instead on “China Deepens Xi’s Powers With New Security Plan.”

What the newspapers won’t fess up to is that the Chinese government made a significant-looking change in the word they use to describe the role of the market in the Chinese economy, but even native speakers of the Chinese language can’t quite say what the change signifies. Ting Lu from Bank of America Merrill Lynch offers this helpful explanation of what happened:

The communique changes the role of “Market Economy” from “基础性 (Jichuxing)” (used in the past 20 years) to “决定性 (juedingxing).” For native Chinese speakers like us with years of intensive training in Chinese (and we did well on the grueling GRE too), we found it very difficult to tell the real difference.

He says jichuxing could be translated as basic, foundational, or essential, while juedingxing is usually rendered as deciding, determining, or decisive. In other words, it’s hard to say what the difference is. Normally official documents don’t just swap out one phrase for a similar one precisely because doing so prompts confusion and anxiety. Are they trying to say something new, or did they just change the wording for no real reason? Nobody is sure. Basically, they either changed the word to signify some meaningful change in policy outlook, or else they changed the word to cover up the lack of meaningful change in policy. Nobody knows!

This is one of the things we’re all going to need to learn to deal with as China starts playing a larger and larger role in world affairs. The combination of a language that relatively few Westerners speak well with a political system that doesn’t put a premium on open dialogue and transparency means that we’ll spend a lot of time looking at important events we don’t understand at all.