The big event

What should we expect from the Sixth Plenum?


Xi: when will he meet Biden?

‘Black swan’ moments refer to unexpected or unpredictable events with grave consequences. In China they usually lead to sudden stock market sell-offs.

So Beijingers’ interest was piqued when a real-life black swan suddenly landed in Tiananmen Square in the early morning of September 5.

Photos of the bird at the landmark site spread quickly on social media, so much so that security officers soon turned up to catch it and cart it away.

An equivalent black swan moment took place in Beijing almost a decade earlier in September 2012. Xi Jinping was a month away from being confirmed as leader at the Communist Party’s 18th National Party Congress but he abruptly left the public eye for more than a week. Xi even missed a pre-arranged meeting with then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was visiting the Chinese capital at the time. With rumours starting to circulate, an explanation belatedly emerged. It was not what anyone could have predicted: the president-elect had pulled a muscle while swimming.

We are at the onset of another sensitive political period in the Chinese capital. The Party’s five-yearly congress is due next year, mostly likely in the autumn. Xi was given another five-year term by the 19th National Party Congress in 2017. Everyone expects him to extend his tenure beyond 2022, but they are waiting to see how the 2oth Party Congress might reshape his leadership approach.

In other words the Party’s electoral cycle is entering its climax. And the most important conclave ahead of next year’s gathering will soon convene. Xinhua announced last month that the sixth plenary session of the Party’s 19th Central Committee will be held in Beijing in November. The 300 or so top cadres attending will review the “historical experience” of the Party’s 100 years of endeavours and the best of the achievements that have been made.

The Xinhua report on the key event was short but China-watchers quickly spotted some pointers in the announcement. First, this is the first time in nearly 30 years that the Sixth Plenum seems to have been delayed. The annual gathering, which focuses on issues of ideology and ‘Party building’, is usually held in October (see WiC380 for more on how the Party’s Congress and its ruling Central Committee work).

The Xinhua announcement also offered a strong hint that the Central Committee is about to pass its third ‘historic resolution’. The first resolution of this type was delivered in 1945 to summarise “experiences gained and lessons learned” since the Party’s foundation in 1921. It effectively cemented Mao Zedong’s position as the Party’s undisputed leader. Deng Xiaoping and his reforms were pretty much the focus of the second ‘historic resolution’, which was passed during the Sixth Plenum of 1981.

This reviewed more of the “historical lessons” since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 with a particular focus on what went wrong in the Cultural Revolution.

Should the 19th CPC Central Committee approve the third ‘historic resolution’, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper notes, it will underline Xi’s political authority, ranking him on a par with Mao and Deng.

For those who want to learn more about the subtext of what is going on, there’s a new book to help. Published two weeks ago by the Party’s communications team, The CPC: Its Mission and Contributions runs to more than 25,000 words. Whether many foreigners will commit to reading the publication cover-to-cover (there’s no excuse, there’s an English language version) is debatable. Maybe there will be some interested parties in Washington where diplomats have been working to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Xi and his US counterpart Joe Biden.

The next chance of a summit between the two is at the G20 gathering in Rome at the end of October. However, Chinese media outlets have already reported that Xi looks likely to dial into the G20 rather than travel to the Eternal City. That would mean the next opportunity could be at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow in November. But that might clash with the Sixth Plenum, with Xi being one of those expected to attend.

Xi and Biden did have a telephone call this morning, Reuters reported, without yet again confirming when they’ll meet in person. n

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