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The Sixth Plenum

The Leadership ‘Core’ : China’s Party elite convened to strengthen Party unification and discipline

At the end of October, some 370 senior cadres of China’s Communist Party, including members of the Party’s present Central Committee, gathered in Beijing’s Jingxi Hotel to attend one of China’s most important political events of 2016: the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee.

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

The Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, from October 24 to 27, 2016, in Beijing / Photo by XINHUA

At the end of October, some 370 senior cadres of China’s Communist Party, including members of the Party’s present Central Committee, gathered in Beijing’s Jingxi Hotel to attend one of China’s most important political events of 2016: the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee.  

According to China’s political calendar, each Party Congress holds seven plenary sessions over its five-year tenure, with each plenum focusing on a specific field. While the first and second plenary sessions of the 18th Party Congress held in late 2012 and early 2013 saw Xi Jinping assuming power as the new leader, economic policy was the focus at the third plenum in late 2013, the rule of law under the Party at the fourth in 2014 and the announcement of the 13th Five Year Plan at the fifth, in 2015.  

Party Supervision 

Traditionally, every sixth plenum has focused on ideological issues and key Party principles. This year was no exception as the plenum focused on the “comprehensive and strict governance of the Party,” which Party officials said served to institutionalize the high profile anti-graft campaign under the leadership of the Party Chief and Chinese President, Xi Jinping.  

Since the campaign was launched in 2013, an estimated 180 senior officials of deputy ministerial level and 1,800 mid-level officials have been either arrested or sentenced for corruption. According to the data released by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the highest control mechanism within the Party, a total of 1.01 million cadres and officials have been punished for violating Party discipline in the period between 2013 and September 2016.  

In the run-up to the Sixth Plenum, the CCDI announced a spate of investigations into and convictions of further senior officials. Among them was Bai Enpei, former party chief of Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, who was sentenced to a “suspended death penalty,” the most serious sentence meted out in the entire anti-corruption drive to date.  

In the meantime, in the week prior to the meeting, China’s state broadcaster aired an eight-part documentary entitled The Corruption Fight is Always Underway, featuring the investigation of some high-profile fallen officials, which analysts said served to highlight the “intra-party governance” agenda to the public.  

China’s leadership has long vowed that it would formalize Xi’s anti-graft drive through new Party rules to ensure that power wielded by officials is “put in a cage.” In the past couple of years, the Party has passed some 50 decrees and regulations on Party discipline. In late June, the Party passed an “accountability regulation,” which Party officials said served as a major step to formalize the anti-graft efforts.  

After four days of closed-door meetings, two more documents were approved, focusing on intra-Party “political life” and intra-Party supervision. Stressing the importance of adhering to the ideological beliefs of the Party and strengthening Party discipline, the document on intra-Party political life laid out 12 principles to guide the political life of both individual party members and party organizations. 
Meanwhile, the regulations on intra-Party supervision established a framework on how individual Party cadres – from Politburo members to the Party’s central, local and grassroots organizations – should be supervised, aiming to establish a multi-faceted “intra-Party supervision system.” 

The two new regulations have been hailed as a major step toward building a comprehensive and institution-based mechanism for preventing corruption. According to Xie Chuntao, a professor at the Central Party School, the two regulations address some of the fundamental issues behind corruption. “The existence of massive corruption within the Party stems from a corrupted political culture and political landscape,” Xie told NewsChina. Xie argued that the focus on political life will not only help the Party to restore a healthy political culture, but also prevent factionalism within the Party.  

A meeting explaining the documents and decisions of the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC, at a village in Guang’an, Sichuan Province, October 28, 2016 / Photo by CNS

Leadership ‘Core’  

Alongside the emphasis on intra-Party supervision, another key message delivered by the Sixth Plenum is the further consolidation of the Party’s central leadership under Xi Jinping. “To maintain Party leadership is first and foremost to maintain the Party Central Committee’s centralized, unified leadership,” reads the communique released after the meeting’s conclusion.  

While stressing the supreme position of Xi’s leadership has consistently been a major focus of the Party since Xi assumed power, it was the first time Xi was officially styled as the “core” of the Party’s leadership, as the communique calls on Party members to “closely unite around the Party’s Central Committee with Xi Jinping as the core.” 

Western analysts have long compared Xi to Mao Zedong, warning that Xi’s power, if left unchallenged, may lead to strongman style “one-man rule.”  

Most Chinese analysts, however, have a different perspective, with many comparing Xi Jinping to Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s Reform and Opening-up policy that began in 1979. Although the term “core” is also retrospectively used to refer to Mao Zedong, the term itself was first used during the leadership of Deng, who was officially dubbed the core of China’s “second generation” of leadership (with Mao being the first-generation core), and was credited with pushing forward China’s reforms against the persistent resistance put up by conservative officials.  

With Xi having laid out ambitious reform plans, many Chinese analysts argue that a strong leader at the top is a necessity for implementing these reform plans. Facing various challenges at home and abroad, including an economic slowdown and increasing tension between China’s regional rivals, Xi’s reform plans range from restructuring the economy, overhauling the legal system to establish rule of law under the Party and reforming the military, to building a modern Party and reinforcing the Party’s ruling status by eradicating corruption.  

Zhou Shuzhen, a political science professor at Renmin University, for example, argued that without supreme power, Xi would be incapable of tackling the corruption within China’s military or launching ambitious military reforms which include overhauling and reshuffling the military’s command structure.  

“Corruption within the military had long been an open secret, but no one dared to address it as it had been a political taboo,” Zhou told NewsChina. “It took great power and great courage to do so.” Dozens of senior generals, including Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both vice-chairmen of the Central Military Command, were investigated or sentenced for corruption-related crimes.  

“To carry out the reform plan he has laid out, Xi needs to consolidate his support base and establish a strong authority within the Party,” Zhuang Deshui, a political scientist at Peking University, told NewsChina. Zhuang stressed that without a strong authority and enough political capital, there is no way the leadership can overcome various interest groups and political factions inside and outside the party to carry out these reforms.  
“The idea is that Party cadres are required to support the policies and decisions made by the leadership core, rather than idolize the core personally,” said Zhuang, also pointing out that the communique issued by the plenum had explicitly warned against “flattery” and “sweet-talking,” and urged Party members to “stick to the facts.”  

What’s Next?  

With a consolidated central leadership and the establishment of an intra-Party supervision framework, it is expected that the Party will expand its institutionalization efforts beyond Party agencies to cover government structure overall. 

The newly released regulation on intra-Party supervision states that “Party commissions will work alongside the National People’s Congress, the government, supervisory agencies and law enforcement agencies” to conduct supervision of public agencies and public servants.  

According to professor Ma Huaide, vice-president of China University of Political Science and Law and an adviser to the State Council, the document’s juxtaposition of “supervisory agencies” with the National People’s Congress and the government, the first time in a Party document, suggests that the leadership will escalate the standing of supervisory agencies. China’s current Ministry of Supervision, which falls under the State Council, China’s cabinet, has only limited power, according to Ma.

 “In the future, we may see the establishment of a super-supervisory agency, that is independent from the State Council, the NPC and other branches of the government,” Ma added.