The long-awaited Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) concluded on October 31, after four days of deliberations in Beijing. The closed-door session, which was attended by the 202 full members and 169 alternative members, was convened after a 20-month hiatus, the longest gap in recent decades. Coming amid a series of growing challenges, including the trade war with the U.S., the political crisis in Hong Kong, increased cross-strait tensions and a stark economic outlook, this fourth plenum has been touted by the CPC leadership as key to improving the country’s governance system and achieving modernization.
Political Significance of the Plenary Sessions
The CPC’s Central Committee – the highest political organ in China – usually convenes seven plenary sessions (Plenum) in its five-year term. The meetings are crucial avenues for the leadership to announce major political decisions or personnel changes and often usher the strategic blueprint for China’s domestic and foreign policy in the years ahead. It was, for instance, during the third plenum of 1978 that Deng Xiaoping introduced the ambitious reform and opening-up policy; the fourth plenum of 2014 witnessed key socio-economic reforms on state-owned enterprises and the one-child policy. The last third plenum of February 2018 took an unprecedented turn in paving the way for President Xi Jinping to potentially remain in power indefinitely. The communique released by state media Xinhua, described this year’s plenum as a key CPC meeting focused on “how to uphold and improve the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and advance the modernization of China’s system and capacity for governance”. The leadership aims to complete the basic steps towards those goals by 2035 and achieve full realization by 2049, in time for the centenary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The 20-month delay of the meeting has been attributed by some observers to an internal power struggle opposing a weakened President Xi – blamed for missteps in handling the trade war and the Hong Kong crisis – to critical voices within the CPC. It is also likely that Xi’s decision to abrogate term limits, together with the wider trend of power centralization and the sweeping anti-corruption campaign he initiated resulted in greater intra-party dissent and enmity towards him. But while those rumors of political infighting might well be true, there is little evidence that the plenum was delayed for this reason.
A New Era of Governance with Chinese Characteristics
President Xi has envisioned the construction of a governance system designed to act asa tool to address new domestic and international challenges, as well as adapt to China’s evolving role in the international order. The centralized and unified leadership of the party is the overarching principle guiding the construction of this new system. In light of this, the plenum served as a platform to reaffirm the party’s absolute authority over all spheres – economic, military, legal or social. It further accredited Xi’s ideological positions and doctrine of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era”, as well as endorsed his position as the core CPC leader.
The plenum also emphasized the need to uphold law-based governance 依法治国 yi fa zhi guo)，a concept which President Xi introduced during the last fourth plenum. It aims at strengthening party discipline and regulations in order to support the long-term objectives of completing the national rejuvenation and building of a moderately prosperous society. For the leadership, enforcing stricter ideological control, cultivating loyalty to the party and constraining corrupt behaviors lays the necessary grounds towards those two centenary goals. Further, given the importance for the party of maintaining social stability, the leadership has sought to demonstrate its acknowledgment of the grievances of the mass and has thus deemed people-centered governance as an important part its objective. It entails, among others, solving problems related to the “two-no worries and the three guarantees” but also curbing local corruption in order to fulfill the 2020 poverty alleviation goals. Finally, President Xi stressed that China would not follow the “Western path of economic liberalization” but construct its own system of governance “adapted to domestic conditions” which would be underpinned by the dominant role of the state in the economy. This trend of strengthened party-state oversight and control over the economy seems to be an attempt to counterbalance potential negative spillovers of deeper opening-up reforms in China.
Foreign Policy Implications
The plenum hinted that Beijing might adopt a tougher line against demonstrations in Hong Kong. Although President Xi has reiterated its strong support and “high degree of trust” for Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the plenum’s communique stressed the need to improve “the system through which the central government appoints or removes the Chief Executive and key officials”. The communique also stressed the need to “improve the system of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) interpretation of the Basic Law”. The NPCSC has reinterpreted and amended Hong Kong’s Basic Law in Beijing’s favor on several occurrences in the last part years, mostly to bar pro-democracy lawmakers from running in the legislative elections. The pursuit of a similar trend for the upcoming local elections of November 24, is already perceivable through the disqualification of pro-democracy activist, Joshua Wong. Further, if Beijing was to take legislative measures to strengthen the authority of the NPCSC, it could empower the body to revive the controversial National Security Law, which according to Article 23 of the Basic Law, “prohibits any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government”.
Most notably, the leadership appears to have given Vice-Premier and lead chief negotiator, Liu He, sanction to negotiate a truce in the trade war with the U.S., as demonstrated by the progresses on phase one of the trade deal announced on the day following the plenum. President Xi and President Trump were expected to finalize to finalize the agreement on the sidelines of the APEC summit, but its cancellation might delay original plans. The Chinese government has, nonetheless, rolled out measures for the implementation of a new foreign investment law which might ease up phase two of the deal. The law which will take effect in January 2020, is set to address concerns over intellectual property rights and forced technology transfers, two core demands presented on the negotiation table by Washington.
While this fourth plenum produced little in terms of new economic reforms – largely failing to meet expectations of external observers – its political impacts for future policy developments should, however, not be understated. President Xi will likely use the impetus generated by the meeting to accelerate legal reforms, with the aim to further entrench his power and the CPC’s leadership and realize its long-term vision for the country’s modernization.