The Fourth Plenary Session of the Communist Party of China (CPC) — better known as the ‘Fourth Plenum’ — is one of the most anticipated events in China’s political life. Yet, it is also one of the most secretive. Traditionally, the Fourth Plenum has been dealing with Party governance and the socialist system. In the past, fourth plenums have made history. At least, for China. For instance, it was during a fourth plenum that then-president Deng Xiaoping replaced the Maoist principle of China’s national strategy — i.e., “class struggle” — with that of “economic development”. Nowadays, little uncertainty remains on China being a global power, thus this fourth plenum is set to impact global history. Compared to previous sessions, moreover, this plenum remains particularly puzzling.
China’s ‘plenum system’ is rather complex. Simply put, plenums are the general meetings of the Central Committee of the CPC (CCCPC), which plays the role of top executive body in China when the National Party Congress (NPC) is not in session. The mandate of NPCs lasts for five years, and the current NPC — the Nineteenth — is in charge for the 2017-2022 period.
Chinese politics work by rule of tradition, and the history of past plenums helps us understand why this particular plenum is a tricky one for president Xi Jinping. First, tradition calls for seven plenums to be held in five-years, and the Party’s Constitution stipulates that at least one plenum has to convene every year. So far, Xi has only called for three — none of which took place in 2019. The first plenum was indeed held in October 2017, merely a day after the CCCPC started its mandate. On this occasion, the members of the Politburo and the Standing Committee of the Politburo were nominated. The second and third plenums convened in January and February 2018. The main accomplishment was to legitimize the constitutional amendment recognizing President Xi’s thought as a part of the Party’s Constitution.
More than five hundred days separate the third to the fourth plenum: a hiatus that had not been experienced since Maoist times. Allegedly, it was controversies from within the CPC to determine this delay. Eventually, on 31 August 2019, Xinhua — China’s state media agency — announced that the fourth plenum would be held in October. The exact date was not officially announced. Still, due to the high-level officials that will participate, the plenum was estimated to take place in the last trimester.
The plenum will tackle the three challenges that currently afflict China. First, the US-China confrontation, which was expected to find a new application in mid-November in Chile, when US president Donald Trump and president Xi had to meet on the fringes of the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Eventually, the summit was cancelled due to the unrest in Chile. Second, the Hong Kong protests, which have now turned into a battleground for the ‘Sino-American split’, as protesters have called for the US to take up the role of mediator. In a sense, this new phase in the Hong Kong protests fits perfectly with the most recent application of the US-China confrontation. After trade and technology, the ‘Sino-American split’ seems to have been operating on a new meso-dimension — that of human rights. In addition to taking a stance over Hong Kong, the US in fact have expanded its infamous ‘entity list’ to ban twenty-eight Chinese companies for participating to internment camps in Xinjiang. Third, although the official statement announcing the plenum does not mention anything remotely connected to the country’s economic development, this topic is bound not to go unnoticed as China’s economy has stumbled upon the slowest growth rates since 1992.
Yet, there is a fourth addendum to the to-do list of this fourth plenum. And that is president Xi himself. The plenum will be incredibly informative to ‘China watchers’, as its result will paint a precise picture of president Xi’s stance in the Party. Indeed, despite counting on a Politburo that is (mathematically) on his side, president Xi has had to come to terms with fierce criticism in the past year, as much as he was forced to call for a session of ‘self-criticism’ for selected members of the Politburo. A measure that leaves a ‘Maoist aftertaste’. However, 2019 China no longer is 1949 China. And the fourth plenum will show how president Xi’s assertiveness — that did not even spare CPC members — was received. How strong is president Xi today? The fourth plenum will be the best event to look for a (partial) answer to this never-ending question. At a time when, on the one hand, Xi remains the most powerful leader in the country’s history after Mao and, on the other, a president looking for ways to smooth a major institutional transition, while containing growing external and internal threats.