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Chinese Communist Party plenum offers no solutions to Xi's problems

Communique did not discuss how to end Hong Kong protests or US trade war

| China

The Chinese Communist Party usually unveils ambitious programs at the annual plenum, or meeting, of its Central Committee. In January last year, the second plenum of the 19th committee endorsed constitutional amendments that would remove the presidential term limit and potentially enable President Xi Jinping to rule for life.

At the third plenum, unusually convened slightly more than a month later, the committee approved a far-reaching plan to restructure party and government agencies.

So it was no surprise that, at its fourth plenum, which took place between October 28 and 31 in Beijing, the committee gave its stamp of approval to a blueprint that lays out a comprehensive program to further strengthen the party's hold on power.

What it did not do, however, was address any of the major problems besetting China's leadership, from the Hong Kong protests to the U.S.-China trade war.

Although the plenum only released a summary of the document, catchily titled "CCP Central Committee's resolution on several key issues of maintaining and perfecting the socialist system with Chinese characteristics and promoting the modernization of the state's governance system and capacity," its central message reflects Xi's vision of extending and consolidating the party's control over every domain of Chinese society and economy.

Despite its lofty language, the resolution seems to have repackaged, albeit more systematically and coherently, the ideas Xi has been championing since assuming power nearly seven years ago.

When its unabridged version is released, we should see a more detailed plan to institutionalize Xi's vision of the CCP's supremacy through legislative, regulatory and administrative measures.

The substance of the plenum's resolution may not be new, but it does set a clear timeline for realizing Xi's vision. According to the program, "clear and significant results" will have been achieved by 2021, to coincide with the centennial of the CCP.

By 2035, this party-dominated governance system will have been "further improved," and China will have "basically modernized its state governance system and capacity." By 2049, the centennial of the People's Republic, such modernization "will have been fully completed."

Since the communique does not spell out the criteria for meeting these ambitious targets, we will have no idea how Xi and his colleagues will measure their progress in the coming decades.

Like most of the aspirational documents issued under Xi's leadership, it is questionable whether this blueprint can actually be implemented as envisioned. As one may recall, at another Central Committee plenum in November 2013, the party released plans for economic reform, but very little reform has happened since.

Those hoping that the party would send a message to reassure a nation unsettled by economic slowdown, tightening social control and escalating tensions with the U.S. must be disappointed.

The plenum's communique offers no clues that the party has pragmatic solutions for addressing some of China's most pressing challenges, in particular reviving the country's economic dynamism, regaining the confidence of private entrepreneurs and repairing ties with the U.S.

For example, on economic policy, the communique merely repeats the same contradictory statement that the party will continue to adhere to the principle of state ownership as the "primary entity" and resolutely "consolidate and develop state-owned economy" while allowing "the market to fully exercise its decisive role in allocating resources."

As for foreign policy, the communique regurgitates stock phrases such as "win-win" and "forging a community of shared future for mankind," instead of indicating a return to pragmatism and self-restraint.

If one wonders why the party should bother to put out a document that appears to be untethered to reality, there are some clues indicating that one of its main purposes is to defend Xi's policy and authority. Besides affirming the work performed by the Politburo under Xi's leadership at the outset, the communique repeatedly calls on the party to be loyal to his centralized leadership.

Such reiteration of the imperative of political loyalty to Xi only makes one wonder whether his authority has eroded since the outbreak of two crises his administration has been unable to handle effectively -- the five-month long mass-protest movement in Hong Kong and the U.S.-China trade war that started at the end of March 2018.

Even though there are few signs that deteriorating economic growth, disturbances on the periphery and the rupture of Sino-American relations have emboldened potential rivals to mount an open challenge to Xi's power, a strongman such as Xi must maintain vigilance against such dangers at all times.

In the Chinese case, no political move sends a stronger message of his unassailability than an unreserved endorsement by the Central Committee, which, according to the party's charter, is the only institution with the power to remove him.

In the event that Xi maintains his unchallenged authority and doubles down on his efforts to realize his vision of the party's total supremacy, the story is not likely to end well, either for the party or China.

In the history of the People's Republic, the combination of strongman rule and suffocating control by the party in the Maoist era (1949-1976) produced one calamity after another, while collective leadership and loose control in the post-Mao era contributed to political stability and economic prosperity.

Judging by the rhetoric of the communique of the fourth plenum, the party has clearly unlearned the lessons of the disastrous Maoist era.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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