Conclusions from the Sixth Plenum

On 10th November 2021, the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), concluded. So what? It is a tempting question. But the plenum’s point was not to determine how the CCP intended to develop policy to achieve its goals and to deal with current problems. That is the purpose of a Five-Year Plan, earlier plenums, meetings and documents; further indications will also emerge after this month’s important Central Economic Working Conference (its full proceedings are not published but are reflected in CCP documents). The main output of the Sixth Plenum, the ‘Resolution[↗]’, eulogised CCP policy in the main areas, but it did not seek to advance it.

Rather, this Sixth Plenum shows the strong political control held by Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CCP. It further entrenches Xi’s views on governance and prepares the way for the 20th Party Congress, which almost certainly will raise him to Mao’s level as a thinker and ruler.

‘442’: Xi as the ‘core’

‘442’ refers to perhaps the most important part of the CCP’s catechism (‘four consciousnesses, four confidences, two safeguards’). Since September 2018 it has appeared in all major documents. Of this creed, the most important are the ‘two safeguards’ of the two cores (if party central is the core, Xi is the core of the core). 

Post-plenum, CCP members are expected to study its decision. They are helped in their study by explanations of leading officials published in the media. Worth reading was one[↗] by Chen Yixin, Secretary-General of the Central Political and Legal Committee, an important body because it controls public security and Chinese legal systems. Chen is close to Xi and is surely destined for higher rank. 

Chen’s order of points is not haphazard. After setting out the ideals behind the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) rise (socialism with Chinese characteristics, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation), the first thing he focuses on is the ‘two safeguards’. Later, towards the end[↗], he makes it clear that of the two, Xi as the core is the more important:

In studying the spirit of the Sixth Plenum, it bears frequent repetition that the most important central point is to clarify the decisive significance of the “two establishments” [an ugly translation of 确立]. Establishing Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party Central Committee, the core position of the entire party, and establishing the guiding position of Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era reflected the common aspirations of the entire party, the army, and the people of all ethnic groups. It has a decisive significance for the development of the cause of the party and the country in the new era, and for promoting the historical process of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.

What Chen emphasises is that within the ‘two safeguards’ of ‘442’ Xi as its core is more important than the Central Committee’s unified leadership. Indeed, he pushes the litany further by talking of the ‘two establishments’: Xi not only as the core, but his ‘thought’ as an integral part of that. 

This, then, is the ‘so what?’ of this Sixth Plenum. Just as the earlier historical resolutions, Mao in 1945 and Deng Xiaoping in 1981, established who was in charge of the CCP, so the Sixth Plenum has been used to underline Xi’s decisive, if not exclusive, power. The plenum is John the Baptist to the Messiah of next year’s Party Congress, when it seems likely that the shortening of ‘Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era’ to the simple ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ will further emphasise a pre-eminence matched only by Mao; and when it will give Xi a further five years or more in the three top offices of party, military and state.

Furthermore and unsurprisingly, the principle of democratic centralism received a strong airing (as it did with Mao in 1945). That concept means debate is acceptable until a decision is promulgated, but dangerous thereafter. Post-plenum questioning of Chen’s ‘two establishments’, in effect questioning of Xi, is going against ‘442’, which is CCP doctrine. Punishment can be expected to be severe. 

This building up of Xi for the Party Congress and long-term power requires a relative diminution in the status of his predecessors. Pre-eminent power requires pre-eminent achievements and wisdom. The historical Resolution of the Sixth Plenum steers a subtle path here. It cannot be openly rude about Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, but it is far from complimentary. Jiang and Hu are given credit for development, but they are no thinkers. Contrast with Xi (and note that it is he, not the collective leadership, who is the originator):

Comrade Xi Jinping, through meticulous assessment and deep reflection on a number of major theoretical and practical questions regarding the cause of the party and the country in the new era, has set forth a series of original new ideas, thoughts, and strategies on national governance revolving around the major questions of our times… He is thus the principal founder of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This is the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century.

The Resolution will not have made happy reading for Jiang, Hu and their supporters. On at least seven occasions it refers to problems such as:

…previously lax and weak governance has enabled inaction and corruption to spread within the party and led to serious problems in its political environment, which has harmed relations between the party and the people and between officials and the public, weakened the party’s creativity, cohesiveness, and ability, and posed a serious test to its exercise of national governance. 

Meanwhile, Xi’s Central Committee ‘has solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but never resolved and accomplished many things that were wanted but never got done.’ Current excellence contrasts to earlier times when ‘unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable development hence became a glaring issue’, when there was an ‘issue of lax party leadership in the ideological sphere’, and ‘the party’s leadership over the military was obviously lacking’. Hu in particular will have found this last point painful.

What does the Sixth Plenum say about the strength of Xi’s power and position?

If anyone expected the Sixth Plenum to provide evidence of meaningful opposition to Xi, they will have been disappointed. While there must be many who intensely dislike Xi and his policies, that is far from saying that they are willing to voice opposition. The ruthless repression of political opponents, usually on corruption charges, will have dissuaded them – so far 3.742 million officials have been punished. Furthermore, that Xi has long consolidated his power is evident from the appointments to top military and CCP posts made since 2013. Where allegiances can be worked out, those rising fastest appear to have past association with Xi or to be people he can trust. A further measure of Xi’s standing will be evident from those who are promoted in the run up to the 20th Party Congress and the formation of the next Central Committee.

But even within the Resolution there is evidence of Xi’s strong hold on power. It is not just that it is disobliging about his predecessors’ achievements. 

Important historical echoes

Xi highlights two events in CCP history as key. The first does not appear in the two earlier historical resolutions. That underlines their importance to him, as well as his ability to frame his resolution as he wished. The 1929 Gutian Conference was mirrored by Xi, who held a conference there 85 years later. For Mao, according to this year’s Resolution, it ‘established the principles of strengthening the party ideologically and the military politically’. The 2014 conference did the same for Xi, at a time when a wholesale change of top leaders was in progress. 

The second event, the 1935 Zunyi Conference, was ‘a pivotal turning point in the party’s history’, a phrase appearing in the 1981 and 2021 resolutions. But Xi goes further: it laid the groundwork not just for Mao’s core Marxist line, but also for ‘the formation of the first generation of the central collective leadership with Comrade Mao Zedong at its core’. This language of the ‘core’ goes beyond the 1981 Resolution, which has the Zunyi conference establish Mao as head of the army and the Central Committee.

These echoes send the message that Xi is in charge, that he is the heir of history. As all good Marxists know, history is driven by an inherent logic of development and embodies an inevitability.

Conclusion

In Xi’s speech explaining[↗] the Resolution, he gives three purposes for the document. Firstly, a review of the CCP’s major achievements and historical experience will help pool wisdom, strengthen unity, and boost confidence and morale. Secondly, it should highlight the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, in order to fortify the party for the journey ahead. Thirdly, there must be no ‘historical nihilism’, the denial of the CCP’s past or its use to attack the CCP in the present.

This trinity is pure form Xi-ism. This holds that disunity caused the demise of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; that Chinese unity means unity with Xi’s vision and version of governance, that is socialism with Chinese characteristics. As for historical nihilism, history must conform to ‘positive energy’ by being selective. There is a complete omission of the 1981 Resolution’s determination that ‘We must prohibit a personality cult in any form’ (the 1981 Resolution inveighs against a personality cult on five occasions). Such a prohibition would sit ill with the frequent hagiographies of CCP propaganda, which are building towards the 20th Party Congress, with its apotheosis of ‘Xi Jinping thought’ and his enthronement as the PRC’s Augustus. Hail Xisar.

Annex

Summary of achievements and aims of the CCP

Taken from Xi’s ‘Explanation[↗]’ these represent a good summary of how Xi sees – or wishes others to see – what he has been attempting to achieve since the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

A. 13 achievements and historic shifts in the new era:

  • Upholding the CCP’s overall leadership
  • Exercising full and rigorous self-governance 
  • Pursuing economic development
  • Deepening reform and opening up 
  • Advancing political work
  • Comprehensively advancing law-based governance
  • Driving cultural advancement
  • Promoting social advancement
  • Spurring ecological advancement
  • Strengthening national defence and the armed forces
  • Safeguarding national security
  • Upholding the One Country, Two Systems policy and promoting national reunification 
  • Bolstering the diplomatic front

B. Five broader significances of the CCP’s historical achievement:

  • Fundamentally transforming the future of the Chinese people
  • Opening up the right path for achieving rejuvenation of the Chinese nation 
  • Demonstrating the strong vitality of Marxism
  • Producing a profound influence on the course of world history 
  • Making the CCP a forerunner of the times. [The text indicates that this is a reference to the CCP’s contribution to ‘Marxism, world socialism, and the development of human society’]

C. 10 significant elements of past historical experience as a guide to the future:

  • Upholding the CCP’s leadership
  • Putting the people first
  • Advancing theoretical innovation
  • Staying independent
  • Following the Chinese path 
  • Maintaining a global vision
  • Breaking new ground
  • Standing up for ourselves
  • Promoting the united front
  • Remaining committed to self-reform

Charles Parton is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career in the British Diplomatic Service working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Embedded image credit: Wpcpey (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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