A Plenum, a Plan… and a Paramount Leader?

The fifth plenum of China’s 19th Party Congress, a gathering of leaders on the Party’s Central Committee, ended today, October 29. The proceedings happened behind closed doors but early reports suggest that Xi Jinping will retain power far past 2022.

The New York Times reported that the conference reflected Xi’s consolidation of power within the Party. From Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers:

A Communist Party conclave concluded on Thursday with a rousing statement lauding Mr. Xi as the party’s helmsman, affirming his broad mandate as the leader who will steer China through perilous waters for years to come. The meeting of the Central Committee, a council of senior officials, laid out ambitions for China to mature as an economic, military and cultural power despite rising uncertainty abroad.

With Mr. Xi as the “the core navigator and helmsman,” an official summary from the meeting read, “we will certainly be able to conquer the range of hardships and dangers that lie on the path forward.”

[…] “This is a big show for Xi Jinping to try to convince the senior cadres that he deserves support to remain supreme leader well beyond 10 years,” Mr. Lam, the analyst, said. [Source]

In the days before the session, CDT translated leaked censorship directives which directed media to refrain from all mention of “high-level infighting,” “power struggles,” “factional struggles,” and the “Xi faction.” The plenary session did not include any mention of a potential successor to Xi. The Economist analyzed the conspicuous absence of new leadership, a strong indicator that Xi plans to stay in power beyond 2022:

For anyone still in doubt about Mr Xi’s intentions, the party’s just-concluded meeting gave a hint as obvious as the one in 2010 that heralded his rise to power. A communiqué issued on October 29th, at the end of the four-day conclave of its roughly 370-strong Central Committee, said the gathering had endorsed “recommendations” for a five-year economic plan and a blueprint for China’s development until 2035 (full details of these had yet to be published when The Economist went to press). But it made no mention of any new civilian appointment to the military commission.

The post of vice-chairman is an important one for any future leader to hold before taking over. Mr Hu got the job three years before he became general secretary. Without experience of how military command works, a party chief may find it hard to assert control over the army. There are still two uniformed vice-chairmen. But the continuing absence of a civilian at that level means China has no leader-in-waiting when time has all but run out to start learning the ropes before the party’s 20th congress in 2022. A civilian vice-chairman would also be a member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee. But a reshuffle of that seven-member body in 2017 did not include anyone of the usual sort of age of someone being groomed for succession. [Source]

A Nikkei Asian Review article tied Xi’s 2035 goals to Mao’s semi-mystical connection to the number 8341. A second Nikkei Asian Review elaborated on these points, tying the 15-year blueprint to Xi’s potential extended stay in office:

Michael Hirson, practice head for China and Northeast Asia at Eurasia Group, wrote in a note Friday that the plenum will mark the introduction of “China’s most geopolitical five-year plan” to date, reflecting Xi’s drive to increase China’s self-reliance in terms of demand as well as supply. He called the 2021-2026 five-year plan as “best thought of as the first five years in a 15-year agenda,” as Xi seeks to stay in power after 2022.

“In the pre-Xi era, the fifth plenum was part of the process of transitioning to the next generation of leadership,” Hirson said, noting that the implementation of the five-year plan would fall on the next leader. “But Xi’s ambitions to stay on for a third term in 2022 have changed the role and significance of this meeting,” he said. [Source]

Although the details of China’s new Five Year Plan will not be released until 2021, Macro Polo, the Paulson Institute’s in-house think tank, predicts that policy makers will focus on “dual circulation” strategy, an economic policy Xi elaborated on during a recent speech in Shenzhen. They further predicted a decreased emphasis on growth and a greater focus on China’s rapidly growing income inequality. Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, quoted in Politico’s China Watcher newsletter, said “[expect] plenty of mentions about ‘reform and opening’ and ‘the market,’ but we should also expect those words to be balanced against an emphasis on ‘self-reliance.’” This self-reliance, wrote The Wall Street Journal’s Lingling Wei, “is a defiant message in the face of intensifying U.S. sanctions against Chinese firms.”

At The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi noted that the plenum’s summary report hinted at property rights reform, a long-held hope of some Chinese thinkers:

There is also a tantalizing mention of a “breakthrough” on property rights reform. This has been something of a Holy Grail for reformists in China, long discussed but never grasped. Under China’s communist system, all land is technically owned by the government – something that especially disadvantages rural landholders, who can see their property taken away at the whim of a local government, with little compensation and less change of redress. Whether this brief mention in the communique will result in real change to China’s land rights or simply more dashed hopes remains to be seen. [Source]

China’s Five Year Plan has significant implications for the environment. Xi had previously promised to make China carbon neutral by 2060. An authoritative paper by Tsinghua University researchers suggested that the 14th Five Year Plan set “a carbon emissions cap of under 10.5 billion tons” by 2025 in order to achieve this goal. Tom Baxter and Yao Zhe wrote an analysis for China Dialogue:

Research into a cap on carbon emissions is new territory for an FYP. In the 13th FYP, targets were set to control China’s total energy consumption at five billion tonnes of standard coal equivalent, and to further reduce the energy- and carbon-intensity of the economy. However, the energy consumption cap ignores the carbon-intensity of energy sources, even though these affect carbon emissions and could be chosen to reduce them.

Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and a key climate and sustainability advisor to the government, suggested replacing the energy consumption cap with a carbon emissions cap in the 14th FYP at this year’s National People’s Congress sessions. [Source]

The plenum-ending report also called for the People’s Liberation Army to become fully modern by 2027, the centennial of its founding. Josephine Ma and William Zheng reported for The South China Morning Post:

Hong Kong military analyst Song Zhongping said the new centennial goal can be interpreted as “putting the PLA as a leading modern force in the world, one that can be on par with the US army”.

Junfei Wu, deputy head of Hong Kong think tank Tianda Institute said this is the first time the Chinese leaders have included the military in such development goals. He said the goal was primarily targeted at Taiwan.

“Basically, the target is to build PLA’s capability to match the US army by 2027, so It can effectively deter interference by the US army around the Taiwan Strait.” [Source]

A Global Times editorial, published in the hours after the plenum’s conclusion, summarized China’s triumphant mood. The two challenges of “American containment” and coronavirus could not stop China, went the editorial, adding that “the US cannot crush China”:

The two challenges didn’t derail China’s development. They didn’t even have an impact on its speed. They brought about new situations and conditions, which have driven China’s amazing adaptability. Chinese people have developed a broader vision and become more capable in dealing with challenges, just like the country’s strength and renewal of resistance outperformed a mutating virus. [Source]


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