On February 28, the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee wrapped up its three-day third plenum session, with nearly 400 of the most powerful CCP officials attending.
This meeting drew scrutiny at home and abroad due to its extremely unusual timing. Rather than being held in October or November, as previous third plenums have been, this session was held only one month after the second plenary session, one day after the CCP made public its decision to scrap the two-term limit for the presidency, and days ahead of the national “Two Sessions” — the annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — which will be held in Beijing starting March 3. Thus, many China observers expected that the highly controversial proposal for amending China’s constitution would be discussed and emphasized at the third plenum.
To most people’s surprise, however, the topic of constitutional amendment was not at all mentioned in the communique issued at the end of the meeting.
Instead, the communique, published by Xinhua, claimed that the session mainly discussed three issues.
First, the plenary meeting heard and discussed a work report delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping (who also holds the position of general secretary of the CCP Central Committee). But the communique didn’t reveal any details of this work report.
Second, the session adopted a list of proposed candidates for state and party leadership. The list is scheduled to be passed during the “Two Sessions.” But the the communique didn’t make this list public either. As The Diplomat noted earlier, Wang Qishan, China’s former anti-corruption czar, is widely rumored to be on the list to become the next vice president.
Third, the session reviewed and adopted a reform plan on Party and state institutions. Although the communique, again, didn’t reveal the full plan, it indicated that the goal of the reforms is to make the People’s Congress, the government, political advisory bodies, and supervisory, judicial, and prosecutorial organs, people’s organizations, enterprises, public institutions, and social organizations work “under the unified leadership” of the CCP.
The communique vowed to strengthen the CCP’s leadership “in every sector,” to “ensure its all-encompassing coverage and make it more forceful.”
This point is in line with the decision made during the CCP’s 19th Party Congress held last year. As The Diplomat reported previously, the 19th Party Congress “unanimously” agreed that the leadership of the CCP is “the fundamental feature and the greatest advantage of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Along the same lines, the Party revived a Mao-era phrase: “Party, government, military, civilian, and academic, east, west, south, north, and center, the party leads everything.”
As for the reason why the constitutional amendment proposal was not mentioned at all in the communique, Zhang Lifan, a prominent political commentator based in Beijing, told Voice of America that there might be two possible explanations — which happen to diametrically opposed. First, the Central Committee may have already unanimously agreed upon that proposal during the second plenum session, so the communique didn’t need to mention it again. Alternatively, there may still be fierce debate about the proposed amendments within the Central Committee, so the communique can’t mention the proposal.
Given that the CCP’s decision-making process always operates in a “black box” — and that box is unusually black this time, even for China — the only way to see which of the scenarios Zhang proposed is correct is to wait until the end of the Two Sessions.