The true goals of the fifth plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 19th Central Committee, wrapped up in Beijing in the end of October, are surfacing only now.
They, unlike what was assumed before the conference began, are only tangentially about the economy.
The core is about President Xi Jinping and the length of his grip on power: The plenum indicates Xi sees himself in power at least up to 2027, and even beyond, if possible.
Technically, the plenum’s primary task was to finalise the 14th five-year plan, expected to set the country’s economic and social policy vision from 2021-2025.
The final plan will be passed when the National People’s Congress meets in early 2021.
The economy later, Xi Jinping first.
The tenor of the plenum’s resolutions was triumphalist, lauding Xi for the success of the previous five-year plan.
There is no specific target for GDP growth.
A soft GDP target may be added later. It promises to reduce pay gaps between rural and urban Chinese and stresses on “new urbanisation”.
The Xi factor enters the resolution in the form of a phrase – “dual circulation” – that President Xi coined a few months ago. It denotes pepping up both the “domestic cycle” (meaning internal production and consumption) and the “international cycle” (foreign trade and investment).
There are no specifics on how to actually achieve that goal.
The rest of the resolution throws hints about Xi’s longevity as head honcho of China.
Notably, the above technology goals are for 2035, not 2025.
In addition to the normal five-year plan, the plenum also discussed a more ambitious 15-year blueprint that sets out China’s goals through 2035.
According to the communique, by 2035, China should have “basically achieved” its goal of becoming a modern socialist country, although the target date for definitively achieving that goal is 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Why the new emphasis on 2035, then?
And why the longer-term horizon at this year’s plenum, rather than sticking to the typical five-year plan?
In a word: Xi.
Xi has made it clear that he intends on staying in power longer than the traditional 10-year term (although admittedly a young tradition).
Recent precedent would have seen Xi step down as the CCP’s general secretary in 2022 and be replaced as president the following year.
But no heir apparent made it onto the 19th Central Committee in 2017, setting the stage for Xi to hold the top spot in the CCP past 2022.
Xi telegraphed his intention to keep power even more clearly in 2018, when the National People’s Congress amended the Chinese Constitution to remove the two-term limit on the presidency.
The Diplomat noted in its latest edition: “Now the only limit on how long Xi can hold power is one he can’t change: his age. Xi is currently 67, which means staying in power until the grand celebration of 2049 would take a miracle – he would be 96. Making it until 2035, however, is far more realistic; he would be just 82 (coincidentally, the same age at which Mao Zedong died). With an eye to securing his legacy as the man who achieved China’s modernization goals, Xi is apparently shifting the goalposts and moving the timeline forward so he can preside over the full transformation. That says a lot about his personal ambitions.
It also reveals the confidence of China’s current leaders, who see their country’s rise as inevitable and unstoppable – and apparently achievable faster than previously thought possible.”
Xi removed the Presidential term limits in 2018. The plenum communique refers to this indirectly.
This is how. Look at how the plenum refers in the past, to five-year plans – compared to the current communique:
In 2005: Proposal by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China for the 11th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development.
In 2010: Proposal by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China for the 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development.
In 2015: Proposal by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China for the 13th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development.
In 2020: Proposal by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China for the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development, and a Vision for 2035.
The latest plan is different from the previous ones in one respect.
It has an addition: “Vision for 2035.” It certainly does not refer to an extending this five-year plan to 2035. It underscores the continuance of the current leadership – read President Xi – till 2035.
It is his vision that is being implemented.
The point is emphasised by the communique, in the section on modernizing national security and the military, referring to “ensuring the achievement by 2027, of the century-long goal of modernizing the army”.
It clearly suggests the intention of President Xi to continue in office till the centennial of the formation of the People’s Liberation Army on August 1st, 1927.
Western experts were quick to observe: “Celebrations for the centennial of the PLA would be happening several months before the 21st National Congress of the CCP, which should come in the fall of 2027.
So we can, by this reasoning, have some expectation that Xi expects to serve at least one more term, through the end of 2027.”
In the Xi Jinping era, the CCP Plenums are an occasion to reiterate the dominance of President Xi alone over Chinese affairs, while creating what the media calls a “public illusion” of collective governance.
For instance, the formal name of the draft plan is “CCP Central Committee-Formulated Proposal for the 14th Five-Year National Economic and Social Development Plan and 2035 Long-Term Goals” The last time it happened was in 1995.
According to China observers, “this was not advertised in advance, but it is not totally surprising, as the Party most recently has set out broad goals for the country to achieve by 2035, and 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic”.
The plenary resolutions confirmed that China will achieve “socialist modernisation” by 2035.
Only vague statements were given to explain how it will be achieved.
However, there was repeated stress on the continued, even unchallenged, role of the Communist Party and President Xi.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues says: “Xi’s fingerprints are all over the document, with repeated references to his strategies, campaigns, and policies, ranging from ideological campaigns to geostrategic initiatives. The communiqué extoled Xi’s leadership, declaring him the “the core navigator and helmsman,” an invocation that had been dropped by the CCP leadership after the death of Mao but has now re-emerged as Xi’s power has reached new heights….”