Nobody Knows What China Announced at Its Big Leadership Conference

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 13 2013 10:10 AM

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.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.