HONG KONG: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) concluded its Fifth Plenum on 29 October, an annual four-day meeting held behind closed doors, whose purpose this year was to hammer out such priorities as economic plans for the next five years and to continue “deifying” Chairman Xi Jinping as China’s savior.
The plenum defined the blueprint known as the 14th Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development. Another forward-looking plan discussed by China’s elite was the Long-Range Objectives through the Year 2035, also referred to as “Vision 2035”.
Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra assessed, “Xi has come out of the Fifth Plenum as strong as he has ever been with a clear mandate to lead until the next Party Congress in late 2022. International uncertainty has arguably strengthened his hand because of the perceived need for strong leadership and stability.”
Indeed, despite enormous setbacks to China in terms of international prestige and economic challenges, Xi has strengthened his position largely through China’s ability to contain COVID-19 as it rampaged around the rest of the world. Xi thus received a glowing endorsement from the CCP, though one would expect nothing less from an authoritarian state that demands blind fealty from both high and low.
The end-of-plenum communique said: “Practice has proved once again that, with Comrade Xi Jinping at the helm, as the core of the Central Committee and of the entire party…we will surely overcome all kinds of difficulties and hindrances on the road ahead and push socialism with Chinese characteristics forward even more vigorously in the new era.”
The mention of Xi “at the helm” is very rare, for it was the immortal Mao Zedong who was China’s “Great Helmsman”. This title confers that Xi is gradually being elevated to the same pantheon of communist greatness.
Titles matter a lot in China’s stifling communist hierarchy, and “Xi Jinping Thought” was enshrined into party ideology at the 2017 Plenum, an honor previously given only to Mao and Deng Xiaoping. This is all evidence of the normal institution of plural CCP governance being ditched in favor of the one-man rule.
Ni and Jiang added, “Xi will lead the party until the next party congress in late 2022. No doubt. But how long after that? Given the lack of a named successor and his continued efforts to centralize power, we are confident that he intends to stay on past the next party congress, and very likely for some time afterwards. Our guess is that he intends to stay in the top job until 2035, the halfway point between the Two Centenaries (the centenary of the founding of the CCP in 2021, and the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049). Whether he succeeds or not will largely depend on Xi’s ability to achieve his mandate given to him by the party-state elite.”
Referring to Vision 2035, China outlined eleven strategic goals for China to achieve by 2035, thus complete its “modernization of socialism”. The goals are as follows: a significant rise in comprehensive national strength; higher economic output and per capita income; innovative breakthroughs in key core technologies; realize new-type industrialization, informationization, urbanization, and agricultural modernization; modernize the national governance system and follow the rule of law; build a strong culture and enhance soft power; create a new pattern of opening up to the world and increasing economic participation; reach the GDP level of a “moderately developed” country with reduced urban-rural disparity; achieve a new level of security for China, and better the life of the people as part of common prosperity.
Ni and Jiang, authors of the weekly Neican newsletter, commented, “These eleven broad strategic goals are not new in and of themselves. Most of them have been articulated and pursued with varying degrees of effort and success. However, the list above together represents an ambitious blueprint to modernize and enhance China’s economic, social, ecological and governance systems.”
The second-to-last point is an interesting one. The goal literally translates into English as, “Achieving a new level of security for China, including with the basic completion of national defense and military modernization.”
Indeed, it dovetails with a separate goal also delineated in the Fifth Plenum communique, since the same meeting also set goals for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The communique stated that the country’s national defense capabilities and economic power should be strengthened at the same time, and must reach the centennial goal of building a modern military by 2027. That particular year represents the centennial of the PLA’s formation after it was raised during the 1927 Nanchang Uprising. Symbolically, the anniversary will be a big deal for China’s military.
Military power and national strength must be in sync, with the PLA modernizing by pursuing mechanization, informatization and intelligentization, to use its own buzzwords. In fact, China will “accelerate its integrated development” of these three areas, as well as “comprehensively strengthen military training and preparation”. The announcement went on to declare, “By then, the strategic ability to defend national sovereignty, security and development interests will be largely improved.”
The Global Times tabloid quoted Li Jie, a Beijing-based military commentator, “With the centennial goal of building a modern military by 2027, China aims to develop the military with the capability to defend national sovereignty, safeguard against security threats posed hegemonism in the Western Pacific region, and protect overseas development interests as China’s overseas economic presence grows.”
Details of what this 2027 goal actually means remain rather ambiguous, but it amounts to the PLA possessing the ability to deal with threats present in the Western Pacific, particularly relating to Taiwan and the South China Sea, as well as other areas like the Indian border. To fulfill this strategic goal, we must expect the PLA to introduce smarter weapons and equipment, and to enhance the training that is closer to real combat conditions.
Chinese media and officials continue to peddle the patent falsehood that, since its founding, modern China has not “provoked any wars or military conflicts”. In fact, it has waged war against India, Russia, Vietnam and the USA and its allies (the latter on the Korean Peninsula in 1950-53).
China continues to speak much about modernizing the PLA, and the military is hit by Xi’s imperatives and political slogans with monotonous regularity. Few militaries must endure such levels of political intrusion and demands for loyalty as the PLA does. Xi’s recent praise and urgings during Korean War commemorations is a dark sign that he is unafraid to leverage patriotism and anti-foreign sentiment to rally the Chinese people under his rule.
The communique assessed the current international threat climate as follows: “China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development at present and for the foreseeable future, but there are new developments in both opportunities and challenges facing the country. The world today is undergoing major changes that have not occurred in a century, with a new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation underway, and a profound adjustment of the international power balance. Peace and development remain the theme of the times with the community of shared future for mankind gaining support, even as the international environment is becoming increasingly complex, with instability and uncertainty increasing significantly.”
Projecting a brave face, Beijing believes that China’s future prospects are undented. Nonetheless, Jiang and Ni pointed out, “There is a distinct sense in the Fifth Plenum Communique, as well as the 14th Five-Year Plan, that the focus has turned inwards. One aspect of this is self-reliance and sufficiency. Beijing’s new economic strategy (“dual circulation”) is based on the idea that the Chinese economy needs to reduce its external exposure, including by securing domestic supply chains and focus on domestic markets.”
The world has changed, and the environment is more uncertain and hostile towards China. This requires Beijing to protect its environment against shocks, for the heyday of international economic cooperation is over.
The two Neican newsletter authors assessed, “Over the next few years, we are likely to see this inward turn play out in multiple ways. First, Xi will continue to build up the party through disciplinary, ideological and organizational reform and enhancements. Second, the 14th Five-Year Plan will focus on self-resilience, indigenous innovation and supply chain security. This does not mean closing the door to international economic cooperation, but rather a refocus on China’s domestic developmental potential and minimizing risks from external sources. Third, in terms of foreign policy, China is likely to step back from the bold and aggressive approach that it has been taking in the past few years. Beijing has learned a few lessons in the last year or so on the efficacy of what some call ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy.”
China is certainly here to stay, and it could be said that COVID-19 has even tilted international power rebalance even more firmly in China’s favor as countries like the US and UK reel under the pandemic. “The organic growth of China’s economic and political footprint will be enough to make China loom ever larger in our lives even without a new global strategy from Beijing,” Ni and Jiang believe.
The coming Five-Year Plan covers 2021-25, with the quality of economic growth more important than its speed. In fact, no quantitative targets have been set for growth targets. Much of the plan seems to perceive a future technology decoupling, forcing Beijing to push for self-reliance and innovation at home.
No matter who wins the upcoming presidential elections in the USA, this trend towards decoupling seems irreversible. There is a bipartisan consensus in the USA that China is a strategic competitor needing to be put in its place.
More detail about the Five-Year Plan should appear as a guideline document in early November. This will be followed in March 2021 by an outline document, which actually acts as the main body of the Five-Year Plan. In response, individual ministries and provincial governments will roll out their respective plans in 2021-22.
Xi’s pride of place on the pedestal of party power illustrates how well he has weathered COVID-19 criticism, at least at home. It also underscores how he is dominating CCP discourse and manipulating the rule of law to strengthen his position.
An example occurred on 28 September, when the Politburo passed new Central Committee Work Regulations that further entrenched Xi’s pre-eminence. Published for the first time on 12 October, Article 17, for example, stated that the General Secretary (i.e., Xi) himself can convene Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee meetings, plus Articles 25 and 26 give him sole right to set the agendas for those meetings.
In the Fifth Plenum communique, the CCP talked of strengthening China’s rule of law, but in fact, Xi is using the law to cement his rule. Furthermore, because of the above alterations, instead of the 2,280-person National Party Congress passing changes to party regulations, now the 25-man Politburo can do it under its own authority. This underscores growing centralization of power in China, something Xi began doing from the very start of his reign. The CCP has rewritten more than 180 central party regulations to date.
Additionally, Article 7 of the Central Committee Work Regulations states, “At all levels…government…the democratic parties and people without party affiliation, people’s organizations, enterprises and public institutions, primary-level mass self-governing organizations and social organizations must all self-consciously accept Party Centre leadership.” It thus gives the committee sweeping authority over every area of life in China, and Xi can now call Politburo meetings and exert his dominance there, plus it has the added benefit of reducing the ability of others to manoeuvre in the National Party Congress.