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Divining the Plenum

Next month’s plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee will be anything but normal

Kerry Brown 7 October 2021 1049 words

Supreme leader: Chinese president Xi Jinping (centre) arrives with prime minister Li Keqiang (left) and other Politburo members at a reception on the eve of China’s National Day on 30 September this year. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images


When a new history of the Chinese Communist Party was released earlier this year by the Institute of Party History in the Central Committee — the most official of official outfits — a quarter of the text was devoted to the “new era” of Xi Jinping. Kicked off by an almost ecstatic proclamation of Xi’s qualities in the introduction, parts of the book read like the propaganda produced at the height of Mao Zedong hysteria in the Cultural Revolution.

Yet this history has a striking feature: individuals like Xi might get plenty of attention, but the narrative is structured around congresses, plenums and other events — those party milestones with their unhelpful numbering and sometimes opaque titles. Few of us will get too excited by a mention of the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Congress — and yet it is widely regarded as a key moment in the Deng Xiaoping reform era that began in 1978. The equally unpromisingly named Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Congress saw Xi, still relatively new in power, setting out his own vision of reform.

Plenary sessions have tended to occur almost annually since China settled down after Mao’s death more than forty years ago. Roughly 200 members of the key party organisation, the Central Committee, spend a few days shrouded in secrecy in Beijing; then, on the final day, the official Xinhua news agency will release a summary of the key outcomes. No one has much idea about how these meetings are conducted, or what sort of debate goes on there. At best, particular sessions have been given themes: last year’s plenum, for instance, reviewed economic issues and probably finalised the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan, formally adopted at the National People’s Congress this March.

What’s important about this year’s Sixth Plenum of the Nineteenth Central Committee, likely to be held next month, is that it is the last full-scale party gathering before the main event, the Twentieth Party Congress, which is due next year. It’s then that Xi is more or less certain to be given a third term as party leader. It will be a historic moment: Xi’s two predecessors both served only two terms (although Jiang Zemin served slightly longer because of the unique circumstances of his appointment in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre). The 2022 Congress is therefore likely to usher in the era of Xi the perpetual ruler — at least in the headlines.

If there is even tepid opposition to Xi’s ambitions, then next month’s plenum might give some sign. At the moment, a calm placidity prevails. It is as though Beijing is windless and peaceful politically, with everyone harmoniously happy with — or at least reconciled to — the Great Leader getting what he sees as his due. But China-watchers will be looking closely at whether the announcements at the end of the plenum are less enthusiastically pro-Xi than expected.

There is good reason to be paying attention. After he secured his second term as party leader in October 2017, Xi made a long, high-stakes list of promises to the Chinese people. About a quarter of his speech was a crescendo of undertakings almost Boléro-like in its proportions. “We shall,” “we will” and “we can” were the key terms, and they were applied to issues like technological upgrading, better education, better jobs, better social welfare, better healthcare. The party would make the skies cleaner, the food better, the housing more affordable, lifestyles more rewarding.

All of this was propelled by the immense sense of confidence and optimism that served the most important theme of all: the rejuvenation of a great nation. That goal has been fundamental to the party’s vision during the Xi era. Rejuvenation is not something to be projected and aspired to — it is something that must actually be happening: rejuvenation in motion, as it were.

This is why the messaging coming out of this year’s plenum will be so important. It must exude unity: the new era can have no scrappiness or dissent. It must convey a strong impression that the party is delivering on its promises, despite the unexpected setback of the pandemic. And it must give some sense that — even under Xi — a new generation of leaders are at least peering through the bars of party discipline they are currently stuck behind.

Even if Xi stays, all those members of the Politburo standing committee who will be sixty-eight or older next year will need to move aside. The plenum will give us an idea of whether younger contenders like Hu Chunhua (fifty-eight) and Wang Yang (sixty-six) — figures long courted by visiting foreign dignitaries as strong contenders for the top job — will be elevated to pole position for the time, one day, when the Great Man moves aside.

Tone rather than content will be key. There may well be some declarations about climate change, though that will partly depend on just how well the COP26 climate talks go in Glasgow later this month and in early November. Even now, it isn’t clear if Xi will attend that conference. There will be noises about economic development, particularly in view of the recent crackdown on China’s high-tech companies and the turbulence surrounding the giant property developer Evergrande. The aim will be to give the impression that everything is under control, and all is going to plan.

That shouldn’t detract from the very radical nature of what we will be witnessing, even if indirectly. If things go according to what looks like the plan, then a party that has been dedicated to creating stable, predictable institutions, and that vowed in the late 1970s to never again let a single individual occupy as supreme a position as Mao, will have placed Xi Jinping in just as privileged a position. A party that has placed high-tech industry on a pedestal will have shown willingness to take on and humble some of the country’s most dynamic entrepreneurs and companies. And a party that defended progressive politics and stressed the need to build up internal democracy will have insisted that all schoolchildren are taught Xi Jinping Thought, and will have made dissidents almost extinct.

Normal is what the plenum will aim to look this year, but normal is certainly not what it will be. •

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