As the Chinese Communist Party’s sixth plenary session wraps up in Beijing, much of the focus outside China has been on two key aspects.
The first is the meeting was primarily designed to strengthen the political position of Xi Jinping as both general secretary of the CCP and president of the country heading into next year’s Party Congress when he looks certain to secure a third five-year term as leader.
The second is the approval of a resolution on Communist Party history. This was intended not only to cement Xi’s position in the party, but also determine the official narrative of CCP history that will provide an ideological guide to future policies.
Notwithstanding Xi’s centrality in all of this – as well as the significance of a resolution on party history – these interpretations of the events may be somewhat misleading.
How Mao and Deng cemented power
The inner political dynamics of the CCP’s leadership are largely unknown. Commentators guess intelligently about groups and factions, about policy divides and preferences, about past experiences and future visions.
Xi occupies the leading position in the political system, and has done since 2012. At the same time, Xi’s current position in the party is different to that of former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping when they initiated the previous resolutions on party history in 1945 and 1981, respectively.
Both Mao and Deng had well-established political authority that was in many ways independent of their formal positions in the CCP.
From 1927 to the early 1940s, Mao had been on the outside of the party leadership in many ways. It was his insistence on a rural-based, guerrilla strategy to acquire national political power and to fight the Japanese that eventually proved successful – and proved others wrong. This became the political base of the CCP that was celebrated in 1945.
When the CCP used this strategy to take control of China in 1949, it essentially bestowed on Mao an almost unchallengeable authority over others, including apparently close colleagues (including Deng). That authority was a major contributing factor in the development of the Cultural Revolution.
A recognition of the “political errors” of the years from 1966 to Mao’s death in 1976 was a major point of the 1981 resolution on party history, passed under Deng’s leadership.
Deng was able to bring about China’s opening up and economic reforms in the late 1970s. He also had the power to re-interpret the past because of his role in the CCP’s early development, and the fact he had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution, as well as one of Mao’s righthand men from the early 1930s.
During those years, he developed close relationships with others in the CCP’s leadership, which helped him when he was in trouble, such as during the Cultural Revolution.
How strong is Xi’s support?
It is reasonable to assume Xi has had close supporters within the leadership of the CCP, and even among former leaders. However, they are not as visible, for the most part, as was the case for Mao and Deng.
In both their cases, many of their supporters and allies were relatively well-known. In Xi’s case, this is remarkably less the case.
At the moment, he certainly does not have the degree of independent political authority enjoyed by Mao and Deng, though he may be considerably respected in his positions as the Chinese president and general secretary of the CCP.
The CCP’s formal events, such as this week’s plenary session and next year’s Party Congress, do not determine policies or party ideology, or decide on appointments and leaders. All these actions are settled well in advance. The purpose of such meetings is to transmit political messages.
Much attention will inevitably be paid to how the new resolution on party history deals with the interpretation of the past 100 years since the founding of the CCP. Of more immediate interest, though, are the pointers to the future.
Xi’s role is clearly seen as central to the party’s leadership, and especially its ideological development.
Much has been made of the change to the PRC constitution in 2018 to remove the two-term limit on presidents, enabling Xi to stay in the office after 2023. Interestingly, though, there have never been any term limits to the significantly more important position of CCP general secretary.
Only time will tell whether this will result in a personal political position with the same kind of authority and independence as Mao or Deng, as some have claimed, or the further manifestation of the coalition of ideas, people and forces which have supported him since 2012.
Other messages from the meeting
The party meeting is also significant because it confirms recent shifts in the party’s policies and strategies. These are not as dramatic as those formulated in 1981 when the country opened up, but they are likely to prove significant not just for China, but also the rest of the world.
Much of the recent commentary on political change in China over the last few years, for example, has highlighted the CCP’s appeals to nationalism and patriotism. The communique from the meeting reinforces this, focusing on the strength of China’s emerging position in both the region in the world.
China was content in the early years of its post-Mao economic growth to keep a low profile internationally. Now, however, it has become more assertive in its international reach, not only towards Hong Kong and the South China Sea, but also through international economic institutions and strategies such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative.
At the same time, domestic considerations are central to the CCP’s new ideological goals. Most obvious is the drive to grow a middle-class consumer society, a goal frequently described by the CCP as creating an “olive-shaped” society.
The new (but so far largely undetailed) policy goal of “common prosperity” is designed to assist poorer people to learn new skills to improve their economic positions, while reassuring the still relatively small middle class their social status and economic wealth are not under threat.
The party was less explicit, however, in how it will deal with the likely challenge of generational change in China and the public’s continued belief in the CCP’s centrality in political life and wider society.
Generational change within the CCP leadership may also be of concern to many of its senior members.
This is where Xi may play a central role in holding together the CCP’s leadership coalition. Certainly, this would seem to be the case from the formal communique of the party meeting.
Xi’s contributions to the party’s leadership since 2012 and for the future are indeed emphasized. At the same time, this is part of a historical trajectory that highlights not only Mao and Deng, but also Xi’s immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.