Xi’s personalized rule risks eroding Party politics

Delay in the annual plenum suggests China’s reform-era institutions have taken a hit

China’s Politburo concluded its monthly meeting earlier this week with no mention of a date for the third plenum of the 20th Central Committee. 

Failure to do so for this key Communist Party event suggests China’s reform-era political institutions and practices may be eroding yet further under Xi Jinping’s increasingly personalized rule.

Since the 1990s, Party Congresses, which are held every five years, and plenums, which are held annually, have followed in an utterly predictable fashion. 

Party leaders have trooped into Beijing to pledge fealty to top leaders, listen to their speeches, pose for photos, and receive and review central Party documents setting out core policies. 

Central Committee

Such practices marked a partial institutionalization of one-Party rule in China’s reform era, particularly in comparison with the chaotic decades of Mao’s reign, in which such events were held intermittently, if at all.

More than a decade passed between the eighth Party Congress in the late 1950s and the ninth in 1969.

Indeed, with only one exception, the Chinese Communist Party has held a plenum meeting of its Central Committee every autumn since the 1990s.

Mao Zedong dominated the Party landscape. Photo: Creative Commons

The only recent exception occurred in 2018, when the third plenum of the 19th Central Committee was advanced to February of that year – rather than the fall.

It was all part of the process of amending the PRC constitution to eliminate term limits and pave the way for Xi to serve as China’s state president for a third term.

This was in addition to his far more important roles as general secretary of the Communist Party and head of the military.  

Reform agendas

It remains at least technically conceivable that the authorities could hold a plenum meeting in December, although the usual advance notice required for such sessions would seem to rule out such a possibility. 

And even if Beijing manages to pull that off, it would mark only the first time since 1990 that a plenum session has been scheduled so late in the year.

It is unclear why Party authorities have delayed the scheduling. 

As one analyst has noted, third plenums often set out national development and reform agendas.

The Communist Party holds all the levers of power. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Given that China’s economic picture looks bleak, Xi may be seeking to align any plenum focused on policies with the 15th five-year plan, set to be rolled out in 2025.

But even if the delay is merely a tactical one, pushing a core national Party meeting off to a more convenient political date for Xi is an ominous sign for the overall trajectory of Chinese politics. 

As deadening and turgid as they may be, regular Congresses and plenums are artifacts of an era in which Party political power in China has been exercised in a somewhat more regularized manner.

Less predictable

If even their scheduling is steadily coming undone under Xi’s pivot back towards one-man rule, Chinese politics could be poised to become far less predictable.

Carl Minzner is a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

This edited article, originally a Blog Post, was published by the Council on Foreign Relations under a Creative Commons license. Read the original here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.