Xi’s in Charge: What the Fourth Plenum Tells Us about Xi Jinping’s Hold on Power

On October 24, the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee announced that the long-awaited Fourth Plenum of the Nineteenth Party Congress would commence on October 28 and conclude four days later. Taking place nearly 600 days after previous plenary session—the longest gap since the start of the post-Mao era—the meeting comes amidst mounting internal and external challenges for the Party’s leadership including unrest in Hong Kong, the upcoming election in Taiwan, growing hostility with the United States, and an economy growing at the slowest pace in three decades. These difficulties have prompted speculation that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is facing a growing backlash amongst the Party elite, but the focus of the upcoming plenum on a key element of “Xi Jinping Thought” indicates that he remains firmly in power.

Q1: Who attends the plenum, and where is it held?

A1: As discussed in a previous post, a plenum (“plenary session”) is the mandated annual convening of the CCP’s Central Committee where the Politburo proposes policies for review or approval. Outside of the quinquennial Party congresses, a plenum is the most important meeting on Beijing’s political calendar, and for the general secretary of the CCP—Xi Jinping—they are critical moments for consolidating the “party line” on important political and economic policy debates.

Peculiarly, the meetings are held at the Jingxi Hotel in the west of Beijing. The hotel—build in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the country’s founding—is run by the People’s Liberation Army and is situated close to the Ministry of National Defense and several garrisons of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers. Attendees for the meeting include all 202 members of the Central Committee and the 171 alternate members.

While the length of the plenum is on the long side at four days, it is not much above the average of 3.59 days that has held since the Fourteenth Party Congress opened in 1992. Since Xi came to power in 2012, the average plenum length has been 3.5 days (excluding the necessarily short First Plenum at which the new leadership lineup is announced).

Q2: What is on the meeting agenda?

A2: Specific plenums have general themes, and since 1954, the Fourth Plenum has focused primarily on strengthening CCP capacity, organizational integrity, and political discipline. True to form, the upcoming meeting will focus on “upholding and improving the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the modernization of China's system and capacity for governance,” which was the title of a document reviewed by the Politburo at its recent session and which will be submitted to the full Central Committee at the upcoming plenum. This phrase appeared in the communique of the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress in November 2013 and then more prominently in Xi’s report at the Nineteenth Party Congress in late 2017. The meeting announcement further stated that the plenum’s governance modernization efforts are part of a larger plan that will be “basically” complete by 2035 and fully realized by 2049, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the PRC’s founding.

In addition to the formal agenda, because this is a meeting of the full Central Committee, there is the possibility of personnel changes, including within the apex of political power in China, the Politburo Standing Committee. At the Fourth Plenum in 1989, the committee voted to remove Zhao Ziyang from his position as general secretary and replace him with Jiang Zemin after the former displayed unsanctioned levels of sympathy for the student protestors. Rumors are currently swirling about the possibility of more drastic promotions, possibly even of a successor to Xi Jinping, but the record of prognostication on such matters sits somewhere adjacent to zero. We’ll know when we know.

Much safer ground for speculation is over the promotions of two alternate members to the full Central Committee. Two spots on the committee opened with the death of Zheng Xiaosong, the director of the Macau Liaison Office, in October 2018 and the demotion of Liu Shiyu, the former head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, after a corruption investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). Likely candidates for promotion include Rear Admiral Ma Weiming of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and Ma Zhengwu, the board chairman of the state-owned investment firm Chinese Chentong Holding Company.

Q3: What does the Party leadership mean by “governance”?

A3: The issue of governance has been a key focus of Xi Jinping since he ascended to power in 2012, but in contrast to the more normative understanding of the word we might have in English (i.e., “good governance”), to the Xi administration, the word connotes strengthening the Party’s control over all governing organs and improving the Party-state’s effectiveness and capacity to steer the country towards what CCP leaders call “national rejuvenation.” This vision was on full display in the spring of 2018 when the Party leadership unveiled a sweeping government reorganization that brought government bodies under increased de facto and de jure CCP dominance, all in the name of improved governance.

To ensure that Party apparatchiks wouldn’t confuse the upcoming focus governance with a diminution of CCP authority, the CCDI yesterday published selection of Xi Jinping quotes including the following from a 2014 speech to provincial and ministerial level cadres: “Promoting the modernization of the national governance system and governance capacity is by no means Western or capitalist!”

After we analyze and parse the final plenary communique later next week, the likely outcome will be that the CCP is more firmly entrenched at the core of political and governing power.

Q4: What does the meeting announcement tell us about Xi Jinping’s hold on power?

A4: To have a plenary session specifically focus on a key component of “Xi Jinping Thought” is a strong signal that Xi continues to strengthen his hold on power. For years, narratives have swirled that the grumbling one hears emanating from the halls of the State Council or the board rooms from credit-starved private companies is coalescing into a more pronounced challenge to Xi’s authority. To date, none of these insurrections have materialized. In fact, just weeks ago, Xi was glorified, Mao-like, in the massive parade commemorating the Seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Now, his theory of governance is being discussed by the entire Party leadership. If he is facing blowback from his mishandling of the U.S.-China trade tensions and the unrest in Hong Kong, it’s not manifesting in any observable way. Indeed, it’s likely that the more overt narrative of “great power competition” emanating from the United States has allowed Xi to push a “fortress besieged” mentality back home that allows him to redirect, to some extent, criticism that would otherwise be directed his way.

Q5: What impact will the meeting have on U.S.-China relations?

A5: The increasing power of the CCP over the Chinese economy and society continues to animate many of the core concerns the U.S. government has about the country’s development trajectory. Yet, just as Washington’s criticism of Beijing’s governance model and its authoritarian system has reached new peaks, the CCP decides to hold a plenum that will undoubtedly increase tensions on this matter. For example, increasing Party oversight in terms of governance has clear implications for the role of the CCP in “private” entities, as well as the interconnectivity between businesses and security organs. To go forward with the plenum’s current focus is a clear signal that Beijing is willing to endure further tensions, likely because the CCP is path-dependent in reforming its governance structure to increase Party control and, furthermore, because it feels it can withstand the resulting pressure from the United States and other developed economies. In short, the Xi administration isn’t looking to alter China’s current course.

Jude Blanchette is the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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