BEIJING: The leaders of the world’s most powerful political party gather in Beijing on Monday for a conclave that could change the course of Chinese history.
In meetings at the exclusive Jinxi Hotel, safe from the public’s prying eyes, nearly 400 top members of the Chinese Communist Party will confer for four days, discussing changes to how the giant party will be managed.
The meeting, according to the official Xinhua News service, will focus on the issue of “party discipline”.
The dry rhetoric hides what may be a ferocious, high-stakes battle for control over the world’s second largest economy.
The Sixth Plenum, as the meeting is known, comes as the party — which has more than 88 million members — faces a period of tectonic change.
Since taking its helm in 2012, General Secretary Xi Jinping has sought to bend it to his will, and taken control of more levers of power than any leader since Mao Zedong.
And his anti-corruption campaign has laid waste to the party’s organizational chart, felling seemingly invincible bastions of power such as former security czar Zhou Yongkang, and paralyzing lesser bureaucrats across the nation with fear.
Xi has described the party as a “magic weapon” that can be used to implement reforms necessary to achieve his goal of the “Great Rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation, an idea that he frequently describes as the “Chinese dream”.
But attempts to rein in sclerotic state-owned enterprises — which control strategic sectors of the economy and are sources of patronage for powerful politicians — have met stiff resistance from entrenched interests.
“These reforms have really gone nowhere over the last three years,” said Anthony Saich, an expert on Chinese politics at Harvard University.
“Clearly, Xi sees the party as the only vehicle that can push ahead with reforms. He does not trust society or the state to move ahead with the reforms he wants.”
At the meeting, he added, “there will be jockeying between those who enjoy Xi’s support and those who are negatively affected by the campaign against corruption and by the potential for further reforms of the state-owned sector”.
For Xi, improving party discipline means more than simply reducing cadres’ bad behavior.
“He has been very ambitious in grabbing power, in arrogating powers to himself,” said Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The “major motivation” of any new rules passed during the plenum will be to “consolidate (Xi’s) position as the big boss”, he said.
Several measures have already been introduced to make sure party members toe Xi’s line, he added, including prohibitions against officials making “groundless criticism”.
“Only one person in the party, namely Xi Jinping, has the right to define what the political rules are,” Lam added.
The meeting comes as speculation mounts that Xi could look to stay on in power after 2022, when he would normally be expected to step down after two terms in office.
Such a move would be “an extremely risky proposal, as it would create severe frictions among China’s political elite”, the Mercator Institute for China Studies’ president Sebastian Heilmann wrote in a research note.
Xi is also China’s president, but derives his power from his Communist Party post.
He will take the plenum as an opportunity to “strengthen his leadership position and the base of his power in office”, according to Mao Shoulong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
The anti-corruption drive has had “breakthroughs” in previously untouchable areas, he said. But its effectiveness may have conversely weakened the party Xi hopes to save, according to a Friday editorial about the Sixth Plenum posted on the web site of “Seeking Truth”, an important party journal.
The campaign has disciplined hundreds of thousands of members and, in the process, “illuminated the universality and seriousness of the corruption of power within the party”, it said, a revelation that has “seriously weakened the foundations of the party’s rule and its ability to govern”.
Critics say the drive has been used for internal faction fighting and, in the absence of systemic reforms, does not tackle the root causes of graft.
Hu Xingdou, an expert on China’s governance at the Beijing Institute of Technology, hopes the meeting will introduce and enforce rules to make party members more accountable and transparent, such as a national property registry.
“There have been regulations in the past, but none of them were implemented,” he said. This time, he said, “I hope that they can pass public disclosure of assets…Only in this way can they win the entire nation’s respect.”