From October 9 to 12, the 19th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its seventh and final plenary session in the lead up to the 20th National Congress of the CCP, where a new Central Committee will be appointed. At the session, the 19th Central Committee approved CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s work report, which will be delivered at the 20th Party Congress. It also approved the draft of unspecified amendments to the CCP constitution, which will be submitted to the 20th Party Congress to be enacted.
The communique from the seventh plenary session provides some of our final clues about what to expect from the 20th Party Congress. Unsurprisingly, the communique gives a heavy emphasis to the importance of Xi as the “core” of both the Central Committee and the entire CCP. The decision to establish Xi as the “core” was described as “reflecting the common aspiration of the whole party, the military, and people of all ethnic groups.” Xi’s status as paramount leader is of “decisive significance for advancing the historic process of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” the communique proclaimed. In fact, the party must unite even more closely around Xi’s leadership, the communique said.
That said, the communique also admitted that it has not been all smooth sailing since the 19th Party Congress in 2017. The past five years have been “extremely unusual and extraordinary,” the communique said, while the past year alone has involved “complex and severe international environment” and “the formidable and arduous tasks of domestic reform, development, and stabilization” over the past year. Amid the typically celebratory tone of the Central Committee’s self-review, this is a warning sign of the severe challenges China continues to face domestically and abroad. Such language did not appear in the 18th Central Committee’s seventh plenum communique, and its appearance this time suggests that the CCP feels the need to justify its performance record.
That said, anyone looking for a change of course in response to China’s struggles this year will be disappointed. China’s more assertive foreign policy approach, for instance, is here to stay. The plenum communique praised “the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” for “daring to fight and being skilled at fighting.”
In addition, the communique repeatedly emphasized “epidemic prevention” as a key achievement of the 19th Central Committee. That’s bad news for anyone – including many Chinese people – hoping for China to shift away from “zero-COVID.”
The communique signals that top leaders are aware of the economic costs but not inclined to change course because of those costs. It mentioned overall planning that coordinates both COVID-19 epidemic prevention and “economic and social development,” but also insisted on “normalizing” China’s anti-COVID measures “without relaxing.” The communique also spoke of the “requirements” of epidemic prevention, economic stabilization, and safe development in the same breath, implying equal priority afforded to all three. The past year has proven, however, that these goals are in direct contradiction with each other, and continuing to pursue the current course of “epidemic prevention” will necessarily sacrifice economic stability and development.
In terms of foreign policy, the “Ukraine crisis” was the only specific issue to merit a mention in this brief overview of the 19th Central Committee’s work. The Politburo is praised for “appropriately responding to the risks and challenges produced by the Ukraine crisis.” There is, as expected, no sign that China is going to change course, but the very mention of Ukraine sends a signal of how seriously the crisis has impacted Beijing’s interests. For context, the equivalent seventh plenum communique from the previous Central Committee did not name a signal specific foreign policy challenge.
The same section of the communique specifically praised the CCP’s handling of Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, there was no direct mention of its policies in Xinjiang, where China’s government has been accused of committed crimes against humanity through its mass detentions of ethnic minorities, largely Uyghurs. Interestingly, there was no mention of “counterterrorism” work, although the CCP has repeatedly claimed its actions in Xinjiang were necessary to deal with terrorist threats. The omission, however, sends a (probably unintentional) message about how serious the terrorist threat was to begin with. Instead, the communique mentioned the 19th Central Committee’s “struggles against separatism and interference.”