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Message of Intent

China’s ruling party highlighted the “institutional advantages” of its political system in its recent fourth plenum, pledging to promote the modernization of its governance system which will not be influenced by Western-style leadership

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

On October 31, the long-awaited fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) concluded after four days of discussions. The plenums are keynote events on China’s political calendar, as they are crucial meetings in which major political and economic policies, particularly macro policies, are debated and formulated.  

This year’s fourth plenum was particularly critical as since the previous plenary session was held in February 2018, China has been facing more internal and external challenges, ranging from a domestic economic slowdown, unrest in Hong Kong and a deteriorating relationship across the Taiwan strait, to growing hostility with the US amid the escalating trade war.  

But despite its significance, the meeting received minimal attention from the international media, with reports focusing on the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong and the Taiwan issue. Regarding these pressing issues, the CPC vowed to “establish a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong, and will uphold the principle of one country, two systems to “achieve peaceful reunification of the motherland.” While the Hong Kong and Taiwan issues are important, the significance of the fourth plenum does not lie in its messages on specific issues, but on the abstract and symbolic issue of China’s political system, which was reflected in the theme of the communique concluded in the plenum – “how to uphold and improve the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and advance the modernization of China’s system and capacity for governance.” 

Future Path
For many international observers, the document with its long title appears to be a cliché and a repetition of the CPC’s earlier declaration of its political principles and doctrines. But by including governance modernization efforts into China’s grand “centennial plans,” the plenum sends a clear message that the party will continue its existing political and economic systems, which will only be strengthened in the future.  

“It [the plenum] answered a fundamental political question for China’s future development, that is on what path will China go in the future,” Xie Chuntao, vice-president of the Central Party School of the CPC in Beijing told NewsChina. The answer is obviously not a Western-style democracy.  

Instead, the document states that China’s socialist governance system with Chinese characteristics enjoys 13 “obvious advantages” over other governance systems, which it says holds the key to China’s “miraculous economic development” and “miraculous political stability” in the past decades.  

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics is a scientific system developed by the Party and the people through their long-term practices and explorations,” the communique reads. “These systems are able to push for the continuous progress of the country with nearly 1.4 billion people and ensure the realization of the two centenary goals toward the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which has a civilization of more than 5,000 years.”  

Among all the listed advantages, the Party’s leadership is ranked at top, the importance of which is emphasized throughout the document. In the news conference held after the plenum, Jiang Jinquan, a deputy director of the CPC’s Central Committee policy research office, further emphasized that the most fundamental advantage of China’s governance system is the Party’s leadership.  

Centennial Goals 
The document also states that China’s governance system, which it said would continue to be strengthened and perfected, will help China achieve its two centennial goals. Dubbed the “Two Centenaries,” they refer to the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China in 2021 and the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. The goals are to achieve moderate prosperity by 2021 and build China into a “modern, strong, democratic, civilized socialist country” in 2049. 

The concept of centennial goals was first articulated in 2015 and has gained prominence since Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, assumed office. It is closely related to Xi’s iconic ideas of “national rejuvenation” and the “Chinese dream.”  

In the past, the connotation of the two centenaries was largely economic, but with the fourth plenum, the concept now has obtained a political dimension. In a politburo meeting held on October 24, which announced the schedule of the plenum, the Party released a three-step plan to achieve a “modern governance” system by 2049, to make China’s various systems “more mature” by 2021, to “basically achieve national governance with a modern governing capability” by 2035, and by 2049 to establish a comprehensive modern national governance system that “will make the socialist system of Chinese characteristics more stable, and allow its superiority to fully take effect.” 

“China is trying to prove that other than the Western model, China’s political, economic and social system can be an alternative model to achieve modernization,” said Yu Zeyuan, a commentator with the Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, in an article published on October 28.  

Systematic Competition? 
Throughout the documents, the word “capability” appeared 40 times. The underlining argument that backs the superiority of China’s political system is that a governance system should be evaluated on its governance capability, rather than abstract principles. That is also the argument adopted by many Chinese scholars.  

Professor Ma Huaide, president of the China University of Political Science and Law, told NewsChina that a major advantage of China’s political system is that it can concentrate resources and make achievements that other political systems could not. “Look at China’s rapidly developing high-speed rail network, or the new Beijing Daxing airport,” said Ma, “Without a political system that can effectively mobilize resources across the whole country, all of this would be impossible.” 

For others, the external challenges China now faces is a major driving force behind the Party’s efforts to maintain and strengthen its governance capability. “In the past couple of years, the global landscape has endured a fundamental change as the importance of competition between nations appears to have overshadowed that of international cooperation,” Wang Yiming, vice-director of the Development Research Center of the State Council, told NewsChina.  

“At the end of the day, competition between nations is competition between their governance systems, and the goal of the plenum is to increase our capability in the global competition,” Wang said.  

Xi himself made the same proclamation loud and clear. In an explanatory speech on November 5, Xi said that upholding China’s political system provides “a strong guarantee of the country’s response to risks and challenges and taking initiatives.” 

Warning that “in a world undergoing changes unseen in a century, the risks and challenges that the country is facing are more severe than ever,” Xi said that “the impact of the risks and challenges must be dealt with using the power of the system.”  

For many observers, the plenum may have a major implication for China’s political and economic policies in the future. As Beijing becomes more entrenched in existing political and economic policies, just as Washington remains adamant on its hostility toward China on various issues, its rivalry with the US could become more systematic rather than confined to specific issues.