Spread over four days (October 26-29, 2015) the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 18th Central Committee (CC) held its fifth plenary session in Beijing when it discussed high-level leadership appointments and approved the Thirteenth Five Year Plan (shisanwu). As many as 199 Central Committee members and 156 alternate Central Committee members attended the Fifth Plenum which was presided over by CCP CC General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Plenum further strengthened and consolidated Xi Jinping’s authority while enshrining the ‘China Dream’, unveiled by Xi Jinping at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, in the Plenum Communique.
The 5,923-character Communique issued on October 29, 2015, exuded confidence as it set a firm path for reforms. It approved a growth rate of between 6.5 to 7 per cent and, keeping the focus on all-round development, asserted that China’s goals for the next five years included “building a moderately prosperous society by 2020”. The Plenum Communique made little mention of ‘stability’, despite the steadily growing number of popular protests which China officially estimates at more than 500 each day.
The CC’s Fifth Plenum traditionally discusses the crucial issue of leadership appointments. Strongly suggesting that these would be discussed, the state-run Global Times on October 8, 2015 – just days prior to the Fifth Plenum – publicised a very unusual report posted on a Wechat site operated by the Party-owned Beijing Daily. It applauded Xi Jinping’s initiative in effecting personnel reshuffles and launching the severe anti-corruption campaign.
The Global Times quoted Zhang Xixian, a Professor with the Central Party School, as saying “The large-scale reshuffle helped select leaders of both action and bravery, as China needs such leaders to tackle the economic problems and ensure a strong start during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period.” The Wechat post added that “more than half of the CCP CC members selected during the 18th Party Congress in 2012 have been moved to different positions or were removed from their current jobs…” Asserting that such a “large-scale reshuffle is extremely rare in the history of the CCP, a result, said observers of the anti-graft campaign, which has been of unprecedented severity”, the WeChat post “revealed that a total of 104 out of the 205 CPC Central Committee members have been promoted, demoted or expelled from their positions since 2012”.
Since his appointment in November 2012, Xi Jinping has rapidly consolidated his authority overshadowing all others in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) to emerge as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. The approval of cadres selected by him will further boost his authority. Meanwhile, there is speculation in Beijing that 67-year old Wang Qishan, PBSC member and Chairman of the Party’s feared anti-corruption body the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC), may get an extension giving him a berth in the 19th PBSC.
Important too are appointments in China’s military establishment. The Plenum’s agenda would include: whether 70-year old Navy Commander Admiral Wu Shengli should be replaced now or at the next Party Congress in 2017; elevation to the Central Military Commission (CMC) of General Liu Yuan, Political Commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department (GLD) and son of former Chinese President Liu Shaoqi; and promotion of General Zhang Youxia, as Vice Chairman of the CMC at the next Party Congress. The Plenum’s decisions will, however, be largely kept under wraps till the next Party Congress.
Economic issues, accentuated because of the economic slowdown and recent hiccup in the stock market attributed to manipulations including by “foreign investors”, were extensively discussed. So also was the Thirteenth Five Year Plan – officially described as a “decisive stage” in China’s development as it covers the crucial stage when China crosses the “middle-income trap” to a higher stage of development. Xi Jinping took personal responsibility for the Thirteenth Five Year Plan, when he presented the “Explanation” of the “Proposals” of the Discussion Draft to the Plenum.
Reflecting continued lack of confidence in the country’s economy, official Chinese estimates assess that between US$ 300bn to US$ 400bn could be “illegally” taken out of China in 2015. The official “2015 Graduate Study Abroad Situation Report” also revealed that while the proportion of Chinese students returning after studies abroad had increased steadily over the past 15 years many students are having great difficulty finding employment and earn monthly salaries of less than Renminbi (RMB) 10,000. In this backdrop the Plenum communiqué pertinently omitted reference to China’s flagship project of ‘One Road, One Belt’.
The communiqué emphasised the goal of building a “moderately prosperous society by 2020” and indicated that the campaigns promoting austerity and against corruption would continue. The importance of agricultural modernisation and ideological and political work were highlighted. There was noticeable emphasis on “innovation”, construction of “strategic scientific laboratories” and implementing the “Internet Plus” action plan.
Interestingly the communiqué’ referred to the “new normal” while mentioning economic development and called for reduced government interference in the setting of prices. Significantly, the Plan’s draft posted on government websites and Baidu before the Plenum mentioned that the Yuan would appreciate at 2per cent annually but that was deleted. The communiqué also suggested that the State owned Enterprises (SoE) will retain their importance in the national economy. Other important points included: maintaining “a high-medium economic growth rate” which, experts would be between 6.5 per cent to 7 per cent; doubling the 2010 GDP and average incomes of rural and urban residents by 2020; and “letting industry march to a high-end economic level”. It called for implementing “China Manufacturing 2025”, which is designed to create more skilled jobs and promote innovation in areas like pharmaceuticals, aerospace and new energy. The Plenum said priority would be given to “implementing a strong network country strategy” and expanding the railways.
The Proposals mentioned the necessity of curbing emissions, ‘clean’ technologies and a green environment. However, official statistics asserting that China consumes 17 per cent more coal each year than reported thus releasing a billion more tons of carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere annually, were a dampner. Fully endorsing the policies and actions of the Party under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the Plenum communiqué insisted there must be “a firm bases for the realisation of the second centenary struggle objective and the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. It concluded with a call to “the entire Party and the people of all ethnicities in the entire country to unite around the Party Centre with Comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary ever more closely…”.
The author is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy and former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat