Photo: Reuters / Marko Djurica
Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a historical mission. Image: Agencies

The Sixth Plenum of the Communist Party of China’s 18th Party Congress kicked off on October 24th, and hundreds of political leaders gathered at Beijing for a closed-door meeting.

The themes from previous plenums had focused on China’s domestic politics, such as reforms on one-child policy and establishing rule of law. The agenda of the 2016 plenum is no exception, and China’s state-owned media has widely covered on the agenda of this year- the great importance of “strict discipline and supervision of the Communist Party.”

Looking at the agenda of this year, this call for stricter party regulation also carries significant implication for China’s foreign policy on two different levels.

First, Xi’s call for “norms of political life” not only signals his determination to push for greater transparency in the decision-making process in local governance, but also represent his effort in establishing a positive image of China’s Communist Party overseas.

Ever since Xi Jinping decided to actively promote the anti-corruption campaign within China’s political system, President Xi had started to build up his political legacy. Meanwhile, Xi’s campaign also fell into criticism on the political purging of his rivals, as political corruption was deeply permeated among the government officials and high-ranking party leaders. The way in which Xi and other party members justify the measures of executing “the comprehensive and strict management of the party” in this plenum will certainly draw great attention from international media, as the Chinese government is more candid than before in addressing this legitimacy crisis.

Second, China’s structural adjustment in an era of global economic recession is expected to invite heated discussions in this meeting as well as the upcoming party congress. China’s economic reforms and the problem of over-capacity would be another topic for the meeting, as foreign investors are eager to know what the concrete measures that President Xi will undertake to overcome the challenges. How China stimulates its domestic demand and the way in which China lessens the income inequality not only can set up an example for other developing countries, but also can affect the future of Asian economic integration.

In a long-term perspective, the official documents that are concluded after this plenum set the basic tone for Xi’s political discourse in leading up to China’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. The Plenum differs from the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in terms of the frequency and the numbers of participants. The former usually takes place once per year, and the latter is held once every five years.

This plenum provides a closed-door setting for political elites to discuss future plans and propose a reform agenda before the party congress with a larger gathering. The thematic narratives of the plenum, as well as the upcoming party congress, provide important cues for President Xi’s legacy and policy priorities during his tenure. More specifically, the greater party’s discipline and the continual reforms on China’s economy indicate political efforts of the Communist Party in overcoming both internal and external challenges.

In terms of Chinese foreign policy, the pressing issue which this plenum has to address concerns how Xi’s political discourse gains greater resonance among Asian countries. China’s positive image of a responsible great power hinges on both Xi’s political strength and the direction of party reforms.

Christina Lai

Christina Lai was a post-doctoral fellow in China and the World Program at Princeton University, and she was a lecturer in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University in 2017-2018. She is interested in U.S.- China Relations, Chinese Foreign Policy, East Asian politics, and Qualitative Research Methods. Her works have appeared in the Pacific Review, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, Asia Time, China’s World, and Asian Security.