The Communist Party of China’s elite Central Committee will convene its sixth plenary session from October 24-27 determined to amend the decades-old codes of conduct for party cadres and members. The goal appears to be to “institutionalize” President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption.

The plenum has added significance in the run-up to a major party leadership reshuffle next year. The 18th Central Committee’s seventh, and final, plenum — in late 2017 — will be about rubber-stamping the agenda of the party’s 19th National Congress. A new Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee will be formed during that Congress, and the reshuffle is expected to boost Xi’s power and authority. Observers will scrutinize the incumbent committee’s sixth plenum for clues as to how that reorganization is likely to shape up.

Toward ‘institutionalized’ graft-busting

The agenda of the sixth plenum was set by the Politburo in July. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, it will focus on issues concerning “the comprehensive and strict management of the party,” mapping out a “code of political conduct within the party” and revising supervisory regulations. The current codes and regulations were formulated decades ago.

Xinhua said the new rules on political conduct will focus on top party institutions and cadres, particularly members of the Central Committee, its Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee. “High-ranking cadres, especially members of the central leadership, must set an example with their own conduct, strictly complying with the party’s political discipline and political rules,” Xinhua said.

Such language is in line with Xi’s concern that corruption poses a serious threat to the unity of the party and to its wider legitimacy in the country. Under his rule, so far one former Politburo Standing Committee member (Zhou Yongkang), three former Politburo members (Bo Xilai, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou) and 10 members of the current Central Committee have been jailed or put under investigation for corruption.

Bo Xilai's downfall and trial in 2013 gripped the nation and the world. The former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary was sentenced to life in jail for corruption, taking bribes and abuse of power. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song
Bo Xilai’s downfall and trial in 2013 gripped the nation and the world. The former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary was sentenced to life in jail for corruption, taking bribes and abuse of power. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song


Some of these prosecutions mask power struggles or rivalries within the party. For example, Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai and others are said to have colluded to seize power at the 18th party congress in 2012. Earlier this year, Xi called on the party to heighten its vigilance against “conspirators” and “ambitious schemers.” In his crusade against corrupt elements it is easy to see how the president might use corruption as a premise to smash his opponents.

The new code of political conduct for CPC members and cadres is likely to be aimed both at reining in officials’ corrupt behavior and any instincts they may have to challenge the authority of the central leadership under Xi. In that sense, it can be seen as an effort to institutionalize Xi’s crackdown. No detail of this code of conduct has been revealed so far, but some sources predict it will make declaration of personal assets compulsory for members of the Central Committee and Politburo. It remains unclear whether such asset declarations would be made public or kept secret inside the party.

Regional party secretaries will be held responsible for big corruption cases discovered in their cities or provinces and punished accordingly

In terms of a new internal supervision regulation, right now the party’s Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) — China’s top anti-graft watchdog, which is headed by the no-nonsense Wang Qishan — offers various channels for party members and the general public to report corrupt officials. However, these need to be formalized to better protect informers. Some Chinese sources also expect the regulations to endorse an anti-corruption “accountability system” — in other words, regional party secretaries will be held responsible for big corruption cases discovered in their cities or provinces and punished accordingly.

Of course, the proposals likely to be discussed at the sixth plenum are all about the party’s own internal rules and processes. As many have pointed out, official corruption is unlikely to be effectively checked without subjecting the party itself to public scrutiny.

Run-up to a reshuffle

Under party rules, most senior officials must stand down when they reach a certain age. At the highest level, anyone who reaches the age of 68 before or during a party national congress cannot, under normal circumstances, be a candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee. Five of its seven current members — everyone except Xi and Premier Li Keqiang — fall into this category ahead of next year’s 19th National Congress.

Those incumbents are: Zhang Dejiang (also Chairman of the NPC’s Standing Committee), Yu Zhengsheng (also Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference)), Liu Yunshan who oversees the party’s publicity and ideological affairs, Wang Qishan, and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

There have been rumors that Xi may want Wang Qishan, born in July 1948, to stay on so that the anti-corruption campaign does not lose momentum. Technically, this may be possible, as the compulsory retirement system is largely based on a consensus and was never written into the party’s constitution. Xi may decide, however, that the risk of setting a precedent that opens up new power disputes — other older officials may also wish to remain in power — is too great.

In any event, Xi finds himself with a unique opportunity to consolidate his power base. Of the current Politburo members, Vice Premier Wang Yang, now 61, Guangdong Provincial party secretary Hu Chunhua, now 53, and Chongqing municipal party secretary Sun Zhengcai, also 53, are the most fancied candidates for the new Standing Committee. Other Xi allies such as 66-year-old Li Zhanshu, Director of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, are also hotly tipped.

If the compulsory retirement system is upheld, Xi himself, now 63, will also have to retire at the party’s 20th National Congress, in 2022. His successor will therefore be selected from among younger members of the new Politburo Standing Committee. So far it is hard to tell who he is most likely to groom.

The current Politburo has 25 members (including the seven Politburo Standing Committee members). Apart from the five retiring Standing Committee members, at least eight will have to retire next year. Many of the new appointees are likely to be drawn from among the ranks of new provincial leaders elevated to power during the ongoing reshuffle at provincial level. The next generation of China’s leaders is already being cast. Xi Jinping’s imprint hovers.