China’s Sixth Plenum and Xi’s Political Future

By – Saranya Sircar;

The year 2021 is a milestone one in China for a handful of significant occasions. The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) was approved in March 2021 by the country’s legislature, National People’s Congress (NPC). Also, the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was celebrated in the month of July. Recently another vital event, the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the CPC was held in Beijing from November 08 to 11, 2021. This four-day long closed-door conclave, comprising more than 370 members of the CPC’s Central Committee, was conducted by President Xi Jinping in the capacity of his role as the General Secretary of the party. 

This Sixth Plenum, in particular, was of immense importance, given the fact that key matters on ideological issues and party building were highlighted in this meet as per tradition, but more so, it marked a key political event in lieu of the upcoming year in which a new 20th Standing Committee is expected to be assigned. What makes this meeting even more momentous is the formal statement “Resolution of the CCP Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party’s Century of Struggle” that was passed alongside the Communique report at the end. It is only twice in the past that such historical resolutions were released – first by Mao Zedong in 1945 and the second by Deng Xiaoping in 1981. The statement seeks to project the CPC and China’s meteoric rise and growth over the past decade, while simultaneously putting Xi at a pedestal equal to his predecessors.

Xi’s Legacy and the CPC Sixth Plenum

Xi is currently the most powerful leader of China that the world has seen in decades. Right from joining the CPC during his student life as an official party member, Xi had an upward-trending trajectory rising through various ranks within the party, and in the long run became the president of the country in 2013. In 2016, at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC, Xi had been “anointed as the core,” whereby he was bestowed with a designation that was earlier formally attributed to Chairman Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Eventually the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” which is primarily a collection of policies developed from his speeches, got enshrined in the State and CPC Constitutions. In the same year, the removal of the two-term threshold for the presidency was an indication that Xi is going to be in power as president for more than ten years — and probably for life. The historical resolution of the latest Sixth Plenum has somewhat indicated that President Xi is now being elevated to the rank of a helmsman, cementing his status as equivalent to that of Mao Zedong as well as Deng Xiaoping – two of the most robust and famous Chinese leaders. Unlike his predecessors, Xi has been carefully managing to quell possible threats to his leadership or any other hindrances in front of him, there were very less hindrances and threats in front of Xi to his headship, and therefore he has solely concentrated on building working on his the ‘Chinese Dream’ and promotion of the ‘Peking model’. Post the Sixth Plenum, there remains very little doubt that Xi will indeed be taking on another term in office, especially as he has yet again begun to reorient political appointments to bring forward his supporters.

Sixth Plenum shaping China’s Foreign Policy

President Xi’s rise can be seen as parallel to the remarkable rise of China in the world stage. During his tenure, China sanctioned economic reforms to combat decelerating growth, and consequentially has witnessed unprecedented growth in the past three decades. Over the years, China has become nationalistically bold and assertive in taking robust decisions and actions in the foreign policy domain. China, under Xi’s presidency, has highlighted its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to magnify its geo-economic as well as geostrategic authority overseas. In spite of international declarations, China continues to exert influence further into the South China Sea, claiming disputed lands and zones as its own territory, building islands artificially, increasing naval presence, constructing armed installations and industrial infrastructure, and conducting military drills. 

Amidst the pandemic, China further expanded its belligerent posture with assertions along India’s border, a trade war with Australia, imposing a draconian new security law for Hong Kong and continued intrusions into Taiwanese airspace, besides its continuous tussle with the West. With reference to external policy stances, the communique released at the end of the recent Sixth Plenary Session has talked about Chinese China’s reunification endeavours with Taiwan, and uses terminologies such as “major country diplomacy”, expanding “China’s international influence, appeal and the power to shape” and so forth. All of these imply continuity in Chinese external policy stances, with persistent focus on the United States (US), Russia and the European Union as major global powers. Over the years and more recently, China has made a clear standpoint of defying the “status-quo international order” led by the US, and instead advocates restructuring remaking a new one era based on socialism with Chinese characteristics. In Xi’s vision for a Sino-centric world order, the ‘Peking model’, it is China which is the global leader “building a new type of international relations”.

Overall, examining the Sixth Plenum’s impact on Chinese foreign policy through the lens of an assertive CPC, it can be inferred that China is not likely take a step back in conflicts that further promote the ‘strongman’ image of Xi in the theatre of world politics. This holds true in case of instances like the stalemate along the Indian border, the East and South China Sea disputes and even on the tech-trade war with the US.  

Relevance for Regional Security Architecture

The larger Asian region including the Indo-Pacific have consistently argued for and maintained multipolarity, marked by a rules-based, open and transparent formula of like-minded democratic countries like India and Japan as well as the US. But China under the authoritative guidance of President Xi has maintained a concrete partition with the other regional nations in principle. Towards that, it can be anticipated that Chinese policies like “wolf warrior diplomacy”, “grey-zone strategy”, and hybrid warfare would largely continue in a likewise aggressive manner in the foreseeable future, especially after the Sixth Plenum. Hence the Tibet issue, rivalries with the US and India, reconsolidation of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and territorial claims over East and South China Seas – everything being of crucial geopolitical magnitude to China – are expected to persist in its regional foreign policy activities. 

Although there is a broad official acknowledgement of the free and open Indo-Pacific construct by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in the past month, China expressed its patronage for ASEAN centrality in the regional security architecture and even maintained the stand that it believes in the ASEAN in playing a greater role in international affairs. The Quadrilateral grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia has always been a source of discomfort for China and has been termed by its Foreign Minister as “Indo-Pacific NATO” that cherishes a Cold War mentality and stirs up “geopolitical competition and confrontation among different groups and blocs”. Despite the fact that ASEAN centrality is backed even by the Quad countries (individually as well as a group), China is still unhappy and suspicious about its formation and sees it as a potential threat in the regional security arrangement. This year, China passed three controversial laws – Land Boundary Law, Maritime Law, and China Coast Guard Law – by means of regulating its land borders and marine boundaries militarily. Examining this development through the Sixth Plenum angle, this is a blatant indication of a more aggressive Chinese outlook and strategy for its future, capable enough to create tensions in the Indo-Pacific as well as altering world geopolitics. Now that there is an overall acceptance of the Chinese unilateralism in world politics, Asian and Indo-Pacific countries should stay watchful of China as it would also attempt to act through regional and global diplomatic channels and image modification strategies so that stability in its relations with major powers is safeguarded, with the guarantee that there is less or no obstacle to its economic and strategic growth, as pointed out by scholars.

Link with the two Centennial Goals 

China’s centennial goals are related to and mark the centesimal anniversaries of the CPC that began life in 1921, and the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Towards that, the following are the goals that were set by the CPC:, viz., 

Goal No. 1 – to “build a moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021 to commemorate 100 years of the party; . and 

Goal No. 2 – to “build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2049 that would observe the centenary of the PRC – hold great significance. 

In February 2021, it was declared that the first centennial goal has been successfully accomplished with President Xi’s leadership over the past eight years when around 98.99 million impoverished rural residents living below the current poverty line, got “free” from absolute poverty. Although Thethe World Bank had additionally affirmed that China is responsible for over 70 percent of the global reduction in poverty since the late early 198070s, the credibility of such statistics still remains a question to ponder upon. As far as the second centennial goal is concerned, China is determined to attain the target and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is considered to be fundamental to push forward sustained geostrategic, geo-economic and geopolitical advancements. Furthermore, to mark the centenary of the creation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in August 1927, China codified a new short-term military modernization goal termed as the “2027 Goal” at the annual meeting of the NPC in March 2021. The 2027 goal is sort of an addition to the prevailing target that China will “basically complete national defence and military modernization by 2035” and possess a “world-class military by mid-century”. With reference to the Sixth Plenum, it can be said that China has continually left no stone unturned to work enthusiastically towards achieving the remaining centennial goals in a post-first centennial chapter. 

The Sixth Plenum has reaffirmed China’s plans in making every single effort continuously in actualising its domestic goals as well as international aspirations of becoming a superpower. Domestically, the attempt of the Sixth Plenary was to imbibe the narrative about the CCP’s (with Xi’s legacy) undeniably positive role in the development of China over the past 100 years as a strong counterforce to the West. Externally, all policy targets, legal regulations, and activities by China seem to be recurring assertions that contemporary international politics is now increasingly driven by China, and it is a wakeup call for the rest of the global powers. Alongside thisthis, undoubtedly, President Xi Jinping’s political future look promising enough to steer world order.  

Saranya Sircar is associated as a Consultant for the East Asia Research Programme at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi.  She previously interned with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. She did her post-graduation in Conflict Analysis and Peace Building from Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She graduated in Political Science Honours from Gargi College, University of Delhi. Saranya’s areas of research interest include geopolitical and security issues in larger East and South Asian regions, Indian foreign policy, global climate change and environmental issues, gender issues, matters of peace and conflict, regionalism, and other related domains. She can be reached at saranya.ruai@gmail.com  

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