11/19/2013 05:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Guy Walks Into a Bar and Asks About the Third Plenum

I knew that something was up last week when, standing at a bar, I told the friend of a friend that my work concerned modern Chinese history. Without missing a beat, he asked, "What about that Third Plenum, huh? So is it world-historic or not?"

I swallowed my beer and considered my answer. On that day, Tuesday, many pundits had already declared the Plenum to be a disappointment after a seemingly bland initial communiqué. But I was confident that they, like me, had little idea what had actually happened.

"I don't know," I said. "Give me a month. Better yet, give me a year."

Somehow, we've found ourselves in a world where perfectly reasonable and intelligent people are walking around bars and bookstores, investment banks and law firms, asking about the significance of an event that appears to have baffled even the most seasoned China watchers.

Now, after the release of a detailed reform plan, we're still grasping for concrete next steps. "China's Ambitious Plan May Rely on Rural Regions," blared the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal proclaimed: "A few days after a vaguely worded document had cast doubt around Xi Jinping's commitment to reform, China's top leader laid out a sweeping plan to remake the Chinese economy that largely erased some of those doubts." "A few days"? "Largely erased"? Only "some of those doubts"? And..."May"?

This year's Third Plenum shall henceforth be known as "May" Day.

Such uncertainty runs through our ability to understand and interpret the Third Plenum. Part of this results from the remarkably secrecy and opacity of China's political process compared to our great democratic traditions. Another, less obvious difference between the White House and Zhongnanhai, the seat of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, is how they think about time. The White House is a notoriously short-term thinking place, where daily news cycles and up-to-the-minute poll numbers can determine not only messaging, but also policy. This kind of responsiveness is one thing that twenty-first century democracy has come to mean.

The unelected leaders of the CCP, however, think in much longer terms. China has no mid-term elections, and President Xi, barring extraordinary circumstances, has a decade in power ahead of him. The CCP believes that much of the success of China's "reform and opening" to come from its rejection of sweeping, big-bang style reordering in favor of incremental "gradualism."

As a result, when we try to understand what the CCP is doing, we often have to pay attention to small, slow shifts over several years, even decades, rather than looking for big, drastic changes and complaining when we don't find many. In other words, we have to think historically--meaning, as part of a process of change over time--rather than as an isolated event whose success, failure, or even meaning can be captured in daily headlines.

The best example of this is, ironically, an event to which the 2013 Third Plenum has often been compared unfavorably: the 1978 Third Plenum, at which Deng Xiaoping is alleged to have transformed China in one bold stroke by declaring "reform and opening." There's no question that the 1978 meeting was an event of great historic significance. But that significance had a great deal to do with the processes of change that the event helped to crystallize, especially against the backdrop of Mao Zedong's death in 1976.

The 1978 Third Plenum was a signpost in the process of Deng Xiaoping cementing his personal power, the CCP criticizing its own history since it began to rule in 1949, and China tackling the enormous problems that its planned economy had produced. It would be several years before urban and industrial reforms took off. And it would be nearly fifteen years before the term "market" was codified into China's constitution. It's not as if everyone woke up the next day to find a world transformed.

The best response to today's uncertainties about the significance of this year's Third Plenum is to think historically. What will be the practical and ideological consequences of the Plenum's decision to say that the market would play a "decisive" (juedingxing) role in allocating resources in place of past references to the "basic" (jichuxing) role the market would play? How does Xi Jinping's new National Security Council compare to maneuvers that Deng Xiaoping made to shore up his power with the military and state security? What does the beginning of the end of the one-child policy signal about the CCP's assessment of where China is headed, both economically and socially?

The most important changes associated with this Third Plenum can only be understood when placed in longer-term contexts; they can't necessarily be assessed before stock markets open in the morning.

It can be frustrating when our impatient desire for knowledge presses up against the slow-moving sprawl of CCP decision-making. But when a guy walks into a bar and asks about the Third Plenum, the best answer may be to advise him to buy another drink.