February 26, 2020

Making China Great Again

“The top brass of China’s Communist Party (CCP) – its 370-strong Central Committee – recently emerged from the Fourth Plenum of the 2017 Party Congress. Such meetings, usually one a year, are key forums for policy discussion. At the previous plenum, in February, 2018, the Central Committee made one of the most politically contentious changes of the past 40 years: the decision to abolish the constitutional restriction that limited the president to two consecutive terms, a restriction specifically introduced in 1982 to prevent a return to the unconstrained, capricious rule of the Mao years. China’s current ruler Xi Jinping, like Mao, could be ruler for life.

Many observers concluded from this development that the CCP under Mr. Xi was taking a great leap backward into the Mao era. A close look at two CCP declarations bookending the latest party conference, however, suggests a more expansive – though also contradictory – playbook for the current regime.

We will probably not learn for years – if ever – exactly what was discussed at the plenum, since its debates take place behind firmly closed doors; delegates are not allowed to leave the venue during the meeting, to guard against leaks. To outsiders, therefore, so much of elite Chinese politics remains a black box. However, two verbosely titled statements published at the start and close of the meeting give insights into the party mood. The first, “Outline for the Implementation of the Ethical Construction of Citizens in the New Era,” presented the CCP’s blueprint for moulding the national character; the second, “A Decision on Some Major Issues Concerning How to Uphold and Improve the System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Advance the Modernization of China’s System and Capacity for Governance,” was the resolution arising from the plenum. Taken together, they present a comprehensive, outwardly self-confident master plan for China’s current and future trajectory.”

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