The main agenda of the gathering of nearly 300 of the party’s most influential members is to “discuss important issues concerning how to uphold and improve the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and make progress in modernising China’s system and capacity for governance”, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
But one should not be turned off by the mouthful. Translated, the top policy-setting meeting will discuss ways to further strengthen the rule of the party at all levels of the country and legitimise its power in the face of what the official media has often termed “changes in the world unseen in a century”.
This matters because under the official hyperbole that China is fast becoming a world power lies one factor which keeps Chinese leaders awake at night – their capacity to manage the complex challenges at home and abroad in order to stay in power.
If history can be any guide, past plenums have often heralded the country’s most important political or economic changes.
For instance, back in 1978 at the third plenum of the 11th Central Committee, Deng Xiaoping orchestrated China’s epoch-making shift towards reform and opening up, making “economic construction” the mantra to replace Mao Zedong’s “class struggle” and putting the Chinese economy on the path of rapid development.
Whether the upcoming session will produce any major shift remains to be seen, but Chinese leaders are acutely aware of mounting challenges to their well-vaunted governance model, which they have been trumpeting as a viable alternative for other developing countries. This basically means that in return for allowing market forces to play an important role in the economy and in improving people’s living standards, the Chinese leadership maintains tight autocratic control and cracks down on political dissent, as opposed to the liberty and values espoused by Western democracies.
Xi declared that China had entered a new era and he would lead the nation to become a world power. He has made no bones about seeking and legitimising the absolute power of the party, as popularised by an official saying that “party, government, military, civilian, academic; east, west, south, north, and the centre, the party leads everything”.
But from Xi’s own perspective, the biggest danger to the rule of the party is the party itself.
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The party’s leading theoretical journal Qiushi (Seeking Truth) this month published a lengthy excerpt of a speech Xi gave to a group of senior officials in January last year, which had been kept secret until now.
Xi warned that the party faced long-term and complex challenges. “I believe the one who can defeat us is ourselves, no one else,” he said of the ruling party, which has 89 million members and 4.5 million grass-roots branches.
After citing the dynastic changes in China’s feudal past triggered by the excesses of the ruling classes, Xi highlighted the collapse of the Soviet Union, something he and other Chinese leaders have repeatedly referred to over the years. He ruminated that when the Soviet Communist Party had 200,000 members, it seized power. When it had two million members, it defeated an invasion by Nazi Germany in World War II. But it lost power when it had 20 million members.
The fact that the Soviet Union collapsed just four days short of the 69th anniversary of its own communist party’s rule must have weighed on the minds of Chinese officials as they marked the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
While the ruling party has much to celebrate, such as building the world’s second-largest economy, the leadership should also be acutely aware of massive deficiencies in its capacity for governance.
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On the Chinese mainland, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has decisively tamed widespread official corruption, but its side-effects have also become obvious. One of them is that officials have retreated into a lethargic mode and are averse to making any decisions, obfuscating government directives in order to deflect responsibilities. This has resulted in poor progress in reform and opening up. The frustrated leadership has now made bureaucratic lethargy a new target in the campaign, but the top-down approach has not yet produced notable results.
Meanwhile, the party’s forceful efforts to assert control have unnerved an increasing number of private entrepreneurs, reducing their appetite for investment. This has led to a downward trend for overall private investment, dragging down economic growth.
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To ease their concerns, the government has promised financial incentives and tax breaks but the private business owners are more concerned about the lack of proper legal protection of their rights and even their personal freedoms.
To the credit of Xi’s administration, it has made “governing the country in accordance with law” a cornerstone of its new governance strategy, but its efforts have been uneven, to say the least.
Xi has repeatedly said every possible effort should be made to let the people see that justice is served in each case. In reality, the authorities have often resorted to extralegal detentions and other coercive measures to deal with politically sensitive cases involving outspoken civil activists, journalists, lawyers, academics and religious figures.
Even well-known political figures and businesspeople often disappear for months, if not years, before reports emerge that they are being held on corruption allegations.
Such reports can hardly inspire confidence in the government’s promise to promote the rule of law and its governance model at home and abroad.
More than 40 years have passed since Deng made the monumental shift from Mao’s class struggle to a national emphasis on economic construction. Time is due for the Chinese leadership to make another strategic shift to the rule of law if China wants to become a responsible and respected world leader.