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China's Communist Party promises 'unprecedented' reform - but will it deliver?

Mark Ralston / AFP – Getty Images

Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag-lowering ceremony in Tiananmen Square on Friday as security is increased on the eve of an important Communist Party Congress meeting in Beijing.

BEIJING -- China's ruling Communist Party embarked on its historic and secretive Third Plenum meeting Saturday, promising to bring "unprecedented" economic reforms and raising the hopes of domestic businesses and foreign investors.

But many Chinese people and international analysts are skeptical of what the four-day event will actually accomplish. Some believe the country could be too mired in its state-led ways to bring the real change necessary for a new economic era.

"I do not think it's going to happen," said Wang Jinshi, the 38-year-old owner of a high-end shoe boutique in Beijing. Like so many small business owners in China, he desperately needs loans in order to grow – but they simply aren't available as banks exist largely to serve state-led businesses.

"The only way I can make my dreams come true is to take step by step very slowly," he said.

Others, like Li Qiang, a partner in the Shanghai office of the prestigious international law firm O'Melveny & Myers, are yet to be convinced of the party's bold talk and hold faint expectations.

"What we hope will happen is there will be more clarity on the general direction of the country… Right now it is all very vague," he said.

During the Third Plenum – the third time the new government has met since it formed last November – the party's new head, General Secretary Xi Jinping, will put his own stamp on the regime as lawmakers set out a political agenda.

The pledges have been grand, with senior leader Yu Zhengsheng promising "unprecedented" changes and Premier Li Keqiang talking of "comprehensively deepening reform."

Xi has even suggested that the reforms will be as deep as the Third Plenum of 1978, when former leader Deng Xiaoping moved away from strict communism and adopted the open-door policy for foreign investments, or in 1993 when the country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"It is not usual for these meetings to have the same level of rhetoric as this one, so it does heighten expectations," said Tim Summers, a Hong Kong-based senior consulting fellow at British think tank Chatham House. "It is something the leadership says is an important catalyst for policy change."

At a speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum (APEC), Xi insisted that despite a recent dip in the country's economic growth (from an average of 10 percent per year to 7.8 percent in the past quarter), rates are sustainable. But he acknowledged the need to move away from China's state-investment-led model and toward one based on consumer spending, like the U.S.

"There seems to be a growing realization that the model they have been running for a while has run its course," said Fraiser Howie, co-author of Red Capitalism, a book on China's economy, and Singapore director of the brokerage firm Newedge Financial.

Firdia Lisnawati / AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves upon arrival in Bali, Indonesia, to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum on Oct. 5.

Or as Xi more cryptically put it at the APEC meeting: "Draining a pond to catch fish is no formula for sustainable development."

Experts agree that the plenum will produce plenty of sweeping mission statements, but say they will be short on detail and numbers. According to Howie, the reality will be far more moderate than the ambitious talk suggests.

"In China there are lots of stresses which mean the willingness to actually carry out these sweeping changes is going to be limited," Howie said. "This could make the outcome more of a 'let's muddle along, steady-as-she-goes' approach."

He said these stresses included the state's financial reliance on polluting businesses and the high costs which would come with moving state-owned land into private hands.

"You see the Chinese taking to the streets to protest, and theoretically dissatisfaction could spur on reform. But this is China, a place where dissent is not tolerated, or tolerated only to an extent," Howie said.

"There is a fear – of any protest – that it will pick up into something more. They do not want the protests on the streets, but at the same time clamping down on the pollution will impact state-owned industries."

Michael Pettis, an American finance professor at Beijing's Peking University, said he was optimistic the Chinese government could achieve its goal but warned that attempts to reduce the big debt from state-led investments could be mismanaged.

"They have done the easy part, rapid growth, but now the hard part is re-balancing the economy," he said.

There is also the underlying issue that China is a country moving toward a market economy while still upholding a one-party state.

"What we are not going towards is an open, pluralistic, multi-party model, by any means," Howie said. "What the leadership wants is a strong China with the Communist Party at the center of it, and where economic inequality is less extreme."

The Communist Party rejected any suggestion of Western political reforms with a full-page article on Friday in the state newspaper The People's Daily.

It said the party would not stand for foreign criticisms of its system and continue on its path of "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

For many Chinese, however, the bottom line is the same as it would be for anyone trying to make a better living.

As Beijing taxi driver Wu Weijian put it: "I don't really know what the party plenum is all about, but what I care most is that the leaders will take measures to increase our income."

Alexander Smith reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.