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Politics

China's top leaders set stage for extended Xi rule with 15-year plan

Fifth plenum starts work on first long-term blueprint since Jiang Zemin

The Chinese Communist Party is paving the way for General Secretary Xi Jinping, the country's president, right, to remain in office beyond 2022.   © Kyodo

BEIJING -- The Chinese Communist Party's top policy-setting body is expected to discuss long-term plans, the likes of which have not been seen in a quarter-century, at the plenary session that began Monday.

China's official Xinhua News Agency reported the start of the fifth plenum of the 19th Central Committee, which is scheduled to run through Thursday. Officials will discuss not only the country's 14th five-year plan starting next year, which is typical for the fifth plenum after each twice-a-decade party congress, but also -- more unusually -- targets for 2035.

China watchers see it as laying the groundwork for President Xi Jinping to stay in office for years to come.

This will mark the first appearance of 15-year plans at a plenum since the 1995 gathering presided over by then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin, which set both economic and defense goals for 2010. The latter are seen as a factor in why Jiang stayed on as chairman of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the People's Liberation Army, for nearly two years after Hu Jintao succeeded him as party leader in 2002.

This time around, Xi may use such long-term planning "as a steppingstone toward staying in office for the long run," a diplomatic source in Beijing speculated.

As an approximate halfway point to the 100th anniversary of the founding of modern China in 2049, 2035 has become a focal point for planning under Xi. The government has laid out economic plans and development goals with an eye toward that year.

Michael Hirson, practice head for China and Northeast Asia at Eurasia Group, wrote in a note Friday that the plenum will mark the introduction of "China's most geopolitical five-year plan" to date, reflecting Xi's drive to increase China’s self-reliance in terms of demand as well as supply. He called the 2021-2026 five-year plan as "best thought of as the first five years in a 15-year agenda," as Xi seeks to stay in power after 2022.

"In the pre-Xi era, the fifth plenum was part of the process of transitioning to the next generation of leadership," Hirson said, noting that the implementation of the five-year plan would fall on the next leader. "But Xi’s ambitions to stay on for a third term in 2022 have changed the role and significance of this meeting," he said.

China watchers are keeping an eye out for high-level appointments at this week's gathering that could signal an upcoming transfer of power. Back in 2010, Xi's status as leader-in-waiting was cemented with his selection as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission at the 2010 plenum.

Typically, based on the unwritten rule that top Communist Party officials step down at the next once-in-five-years party congress after turning 68, Xi would be expected to cede leadership at the 2022 meeting, when he will be 69. Yet no likely successors emerged at the last party congress in 2017.

Should this state of affairs continue at the fifth plenum, that would indicate that Xi is angling to stay in power beyond 2022.

Jiang and Hu both stepped down after two five-year terms, as required by the constitution. But the charter was revised in 2018 to eliminate presidential term limits, opening the door to a third term for Xi.

The plenum will wrap up Thursday with recommendations for the five-year program and longer-term goals. Based on past precedent, it is likely that only an outline will be made public that day, with the full text and Xi's explanation released several days later. The numerical targets that market watchers are waiting for are expected to be included in the full version.

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