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Is China serious about reform?

November 6, 2013: 12:17 PM ET

Top Communist Party leaders are expected to discuss corruption and the environment at an upcoming retreat. But actions speak louder than words.

By Scott Cendrowski, writer

131106120948-chinese-president-xi-jinping-620xaFORTUNE -- China's Communist Party is spending this weekend in meetings. Important ones, maybe even historic, or at least so say the state press. The four-day event that starts Saturday in Beijing is officially called the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, a mandatory retreat for the country's top 200 or so communists.

New party members, including President Xi Jinping, rose to power in the past year and spent their first two plenary sessions mostly on personnel changes. That's why the big buildup to the third, which has historically produced the kind of economic events that are credited with propelling the country forward, such as Deng Xiaoping's ascension to power at the 1978 session.

China's state-run press is telegraphing big reforms on corruption, free markets, and the environment. The official Xinhua news agency wrote this week that the Third Plenary "is expected to steer the country into an historic turning point and transform its growth pattern." China Daily carried a front-page story over the weekend about Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's push to liberalize local governments. And the newspaper today ran the banner headline: POLLUTION TO EASE IN FIVE TO 10 YEARS.

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But it all looks optimistic. There's the Party's message, and then there's the Party's actions. And so far President Xi's term has been marked by a notable move toward conservatism. Major political reforms haven't happened despite early chatter about his reformist ways. Instead, state media have investigated multinationals like Apple (AAPL) for patent infringement, Starbucks (SBUX) for price gouging, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for bribery. Moreover, pollution is reaching crisis levels in the country's north, and the government is still talking about fixes being at least five years away. Predicting drastic reforms from the new government seems unrealistic, especially after a year in which the same government has reacted cautiously to the country's problems.

The Western press is more guarded about the weekend session. The key potential changes are in economic reform, but those aren't certain. Neither are land rights issues, nor moves to reign in anti-competitive state-owned enterprises.

Of course, it may be impossible to know what happens over the weekend, because the news is treated as a state secret. No cameras are let in, no reporters, no speech transcripts distributed ahead of time -- the polar opposite of an American president's State of the Union address.

For now, observers can only read the prognosticators, hope that China takes steps to address its growing problems, and take comfort in knowing that the country is determined to grow GDP at least 7.2% a year at a time when much else remains unclear.

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