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Chinese Plenum

Why in the News?
On November 11, China’s Communist Party, after a four-day behind-closed-doors meeting of its Central Committee called its sixth plenum, passed what is called a “Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century”.

What is a Plenum?

  • The plenum is the most important event in China’s political calendar, a meeting of all members of the Central Committee of the party.
  • A plenum is essentially a gathering of the more than 300 members of the party’s Central Committee.
  • The meetings roughly take place once a year.
  • Every Central Committee, whose membership is approved by the CCP’s National Congress at the time of its five-yearly election, holds seven plenums in its five-year cycle.
  • Each plenum has a theme — the first two are usually about the party organisation, the third and fourth deal with governance, the fifth is about the next five-year plan, the sixth revolves around ideological issues and sets the stage for a leadership change, and the seventh is about the next National Congress.
  • A plenum is a closed-door event. A statement is issued at the end of every plenum providing information about the discussions and the resolutions.

About this Plenum

  • The present Central Committee is the CCP’s 19th and this is its sixth plenum.
  • As general secretary of the party, President Xi Jinping led the plenum, attended by all 370 members of the central committee.
  • The importance of this resolution is that there have only been two other historical resolutions, one by Mao Zedong in 1945 (Resolution of Certain Questions in the History of our Party), and the second by Deng Xiaoping in 1981 (Resolution of Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China).
  • This was only the third such “historical resolution” passed by the party in its 100-year history.

Important plenums

  • In 1945, Mao passed a resolution that heralded a turn away from Stalin’s influence and established what the party calls “Mao Zedong Thought” as its leading ideology.
  • A plenum often cited as the most significant in China’s history is the third plenum of the 11th Central Committee that was held in Beijing from December 18 to December 22, 1978. The plenum marked the start of the “reform and opening up” era and the return of Deng Xiaoping, who had been among many officials purged by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.
  • The 11th Central Committee’s sixth plenum, convened in Beijing between June 27 and 29, 1981, passed the party’s first resolution on history since 1945. What was called a “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China” criticised the Cultural Revolution, acknowledged Mao’s mistakes, and brought an end to rule by personality cult.
  • In 1981, Deng passed a resolution that marked another sharp turn — away from Maoism and a personality cult to the reform era and faster growth
  • It was at the sixth plenum of the 18th committee in 2016 that Xi was declared a “core” leader of the CCP, a term that has been used only for three other Chinese leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. The following year, Xi was re-elected for a second term.
  • The 2021 resolution urges members to “resolutely uphold” Xi’s “core position in the party” and to “ensure that all party members act in unison”

Rewriting the past

  • This week’s resolution on history, the first such resolution in 40 years, differs sharply in its portrayal of the party’s 100-year history as an unalloyed triumph.
  • It celebrated the party’s 100-year history, saying that under its leadership “the Chinese people had stood up and the time in which the Chinese nation could be bullied and abused by others was gone”.
  • It hailed the legacies of Mao and Deng, with the two former leaders receiving seven and five mentions respectively. Deng’s two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao received single mentions.
  • The communique devoted considerable space to the current leader, Mr Xi, whose name was mentioned 17 times.
  • It referred to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, his ideology, as “embodying the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times and representing a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context”.
  • It made several mentions of the need for party members to “resolutely uphold” Mr Xi’s “core position in the party” and to “ensure that all party members act in unison”.

Controlling the future

  • The actual significance of plenums and resolutions goes beyond historical narrative.
  • For Mao and Deng, the resolutions on history that they passed heralded significant changes in their country’s future.
  • And in the days leading up to the sixth plenum, party historians were comparing the latest plenum to those that had altered the course of China’s history.
  • Power, and the struggle to hold on to it, is ultimately what past plenums have been driven by.
  • Indeed, even the latest resolution on history is more about the future than it is about the past.
  • The latest plenum leaves Mr Xi in a dominant position ahead of next year’s 20th National Congress, when he will complete 10 years at the helm and mark the start of his third five-year term.
  • This is why it repeatedly emphasises Mr Xi’s “core position” and the duty of every party member to protect it and support the idea of a “unified centralised leadership”.
  • In the coming months ahead, this message will filter through its rank and file, and ultimately find its way to textbooks in schools and colleges.
  • The message, reading between the lines, is plain and simple: Mr Xi is here to stay. In that sense, 2021 is not very different from 1945 and 1981.

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