On Monday, the Communist Party of China kicked off the sixth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee. Over the next four days, the 205-member body will convene a series of meetings in Beijing around the general theme of “governing the Party in a strict manner” — one of “Four Comprehensives” that President Xi Jinping in 2014 outlined as his administration’s guiding philosophy. Though many of the most substantive meetings will take place behind closed doors, the coming weeks could provide important clues — in the form of official pronouncements, rumors or personnel changes — of their contents. In particular, they could shed light on the status of Xi’s push to solidify his position as the “core” of his generation of Communist Party leaders.
Past sixth plenary sessions have focused on questions of social morality and cultural reform, themes broadly consistent with this year’s emphasis on Party governance — especially given the Xi administration’s heightened attention to the Party’s central place in Chinese society and cultural life. And like past sixth plenums, this year’s session derives its real significance from its role as the final meeting of the full Central Committee before the National Party Congress, which takes place every fifth October. It is at the Party Congress that China’s leaders name the next Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest governing bodies. Its placement on the calendar thus makes the sixth plenum the unofficial start to China’s “reshuffle season,” a yearlong process of political jockeying out of which the next half-decade’s leadership will emerge.
Under any circumstances, that function already would make the sixth plenum and its immediate aftermath events to watch. But this year’s session comes at a time of extraordinary change in the structure of Chinese elite politics spurred by Xi’s efforts to extend his control over key Party and state organs and to eliminate both personal and institutional checks on his authority. Given the stakes, this week’s meetings are likely to engender contentious debate (if not outright political struggle) over the nature and trajectory of Communist Party governance. Though the outcomes of most of those deliberations will not become clear until next year’s congress, the coverage of this week’s plenary, combined with the rumors and personnel shifts likely to follow on its heels, will nonetheless help to clarify their basic parameters.
Foremost, the plenary session will serve as a gauge on the overall status and extent of Party support for Xi’s drive to consolidate his authority. Since coming to power, Xi has gone to great lengths to concentrate control over key state institutions under himself and his closest allies, while simultaneously sidelining alternate patronage networks and sources of intraparty political power. These efforts came to something of a head earlier this year when the Xi administration announced sweeping reforms to the Communist Youth League, effectively marginalizing what had for decades been one of China’s key paths to political power, albeit not one through which Xi himself rose. Inclusion of a reference to Xi as the Party’s core leader — a title not given to his predecessor, President Hu Jintao — in the sixth plenum’s post-meeting communique would indicate that Xi’s influence within the Party continues to grow. Likewise, any post-plenum personnel shifts moving Xi’s proteges and associates into prominent government posts could point to his success at overcoming opposition both to his core policy goals and to his efforts to overhaul Deng Xiaoping’s consensus-based model of Party governance.
These signs become even more significant considering that at next year’s Party Congress, five of the Politburo Standing Committee’s seven members are set to retire — at least, that is, if Party leaders observe the long-standing convention that top-level officials retire at age 68. Though there is thus far no concrete evidence to suggest that Xi intends to defy the convention, speculation has increased that Wang Qishan, who heads the government’s anti-graft campaign and is widely regarded as Xi’s most effective deputy, will retain his place on the Standing Committee despite turning 69 in July. In theory, this would create a precedent for Xi himself to stay on as Party secretary (and perhaps president) after 2022, when his 10-year term is set to end. Though there is no way yet to gauge the likelihood of either development, it is at least reasonable to believe that given the opportunity, Xi would extend his tenure beyond 2022. Any sign of Xi’s growing influence in the Party would bring these possibilities one step closer to reality.
The result, of course, would be a significant reworking of the structure of elite politics in the Communist Party, crystallized in a shift away from the consensus model of governance toward one in which decision-making is more flexible and political power is more concentrated. But while such changes would mark a departure from politics as practiced within the Communist Party over the past two decades, they are hardly a departure from the mainstream of Chinese politics under Mao Zedong or indeed even further back in history. They speak to the Party’s enduring adaptability, a feature born of pragmatism and far more fundamental than conventions and rules. In the years ahead, as China weathers the strains of economic reform and restructuring, this essential pragmatism and adaptability could prove one of the Party’s greatest assets.