Analysts say Xi Jinping's leadership is in crisis, and a plenary session could expose political in-fighting.
By Yitong Wu and Chingman for RFA Cantonese
November 30, 2023
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves at an event to introduce new members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 23, 2022.
China's ruling Communist Party appears to have postponed a key political meeting, in a move analysts said suggests that party leader Xi Jinping faces strong currents of dissent from within party ranks that he may not be able to keep under wraps at a plenary session.
The third plenary session of the Central Committee – the party's biggest decision-making body – is typically held a year after a new leadership takes power, yet Xi's third term in office was nodded through by the 20th party congress in October 2022, with the latest Politburo meeting wrapping up on Nov. 27 with no word of a third plenary session.
Now, Xi is on a trip to Shanghai, which saw widespread calls for his resignation during the "white paper" protests of 2022, a move that likely rules out any plenary session at least until next month.
Previous third plenums have been used to launch new policy directions or reforms: late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping paved the way for decades of breakneck economic growth at the Third Plenum of the 11th party congress back in 1978.
Late essayist and former top Communist Party aide Bao Tong once described that third plenum as "a uniquely lively meeting" that started "a chain reaction" in Chinese politics, something that Xi is likely keen to avoid.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials clap their hands after a vote on a constitutional amendment eliminating presidential term limits during the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 11, 2018. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
"The frenzied debates in the Central Committee led to similar discussions at local and grass-roots levels, to a healthy hubbub within the party and in society at large," wrote Bao, who was there.
"As everyone began talking at once, initially about the [1976 mass gathering and protest known as the] Tiananmen Incident and the political issues of the Cultural Revolution, the subjects debated expanded to the communes, to the planned economy, to collectivism, to the iron rice-bowl, and all sorts of related problems."
"All these subjects lost their forbidden halo of light and became things that ordinary people could examine, and debate. The entire impetus for reform sprang directly out of this process of everyone talking at once."
Beijing constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said Xi likely fears he would similarly lose control of a third plenum, amid widespread dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy, which recently spilled into the public realm in the form of spontaneous public mourning activities for late former premier Li Keqiang.
"In his current predicament, Xi Jinping is worried about losing his grip on power," Zhang said. "It would be hard for him to keep control over a plenary session right now, with the risk of exposing [currently unspoken] conflicts, and even the possibility of personnel changes."
"So in future, we may see more meetings of the Politburo and of the specialized agencies under the Central Committee [which are mostly headed by Xi], instead of plenary sessions," he said.
"This facilitates the centralization of power" in Xi's hands, Zhang said.
Veteran political journalist Gao Yu said Xi's abandonment of the economic reform policies of the Deng era has sent the economy "off a cliff" and put Xi's leadership in crisis.
'In his current predicament, Xi Jinping is worried about losing his grip on power,' says Beijing constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan, seen in this undated photo. (Zhang Nan/VOA)
Given that third plenums are often devoted to economic policy, Xi can't afford to convene one at the current time, she said.
"China's economy has fallen off a cliff, and half the foreign companies are leaving," Gao said. "Xi Jinping has been left with the aftermath of that, and right now he just wants to boost the economy."
"Third plenums of the Central Committee usually come up with big plans for economic reform, but right now he can't come up with anything," she said.
"It may be that they won't even hold one this year, or maybe they'll hold it in January or February," Gao said.
Gao said Xi's leadership is "in flames," and that nobody supports him.
"Nobody is with him, not in the party nor among the people," she said. "The thing that needs to change is him, but who could we put in his place?"
"The situation is very bad right now, and we need someone who can turn the tide, but there's nobody."
‘Nobody believes in Xi’
U.S.-based political scientist Wang Juntao said third plenums are supposed to come up with "bold and constructive" policies and focus on practicalities.
"But right now, there are practical issues that can't be covered up," Wang said. "Nobody believes in Xi Jinping any more."
"A major dictatorship relies on its rituals to maintain public trust and respect for its imperial power," he said. "If these don't happen, then it risks losing its grip on power."
Emblematic of problems with China’s struggling real estate industry, deserted villas fill a suburb of Shenyang in northeastern Liaoning province, March 31, 2023. (Jade Gao/AFP)
Chinese law expert Carl Minzner wrote in a Nov. 27 blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations that the failure to set a date for such a key party event suggests Xi may be eroding reform-era political rituals under his “increasingly personalized rule."
"It remains at least technically conceivable that party authorities could somehow manage to hold a plenum meeting in December, although the usual advance notice required for such sessions would seem to rule such a possibility out," he said.
"And even if Beijing manages to pull that off, it would mark only the first time since 1990 that a plenum session has been scheduled so late in the year," Minzner wrote, calling any postponement "an ominous sign for the overall trajectory of Chinese politics."
Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.