(Photo by Xinhua)

Rob La Terza

Before the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from October 28-31, some China watchers speculated on the outcome of the meeting because it was abnormally late. The delay led to much head-scratching and analysis from Western observers, some of whom concluded that it may have been delayed because Xi faced opposition within the Party.

Because of China’s lack of political transparency, external China watchers cannot know Xi’s political strength or weakness with certainty. However, China is embroiled in significant international turmoil. In addition to long-standing human rights concerns, the U.S. is at loggerheads with China over trade and the Hong Kong protests. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea have engendered American fears about China’s long-term plans for global influence. Domestically, China’s trade conflict with the US has worsened China’s already slowing economic growth. As China’s paramount leader, the proverbial buck stops with Xi. Party leaders could criticize Xi for losing the strategic opportunity China has enjoyed for decades. Delaying the meeting would have given Xi more time to resolve concerns held by influential Party leaders before any important decisions about the future of Chinese governance were made at the plenum. A popular speculation was that there could be personnel change, showing who might be favored as Xi Jinping’s heir apparent. That person would be next to assume China’s leadership at the upcoming 20th CPC Congress. Commentators have theorized that after the abolition of term limits in the Chinese Constitution in 2018, Xi Jinping might be facing internal pressure to allay fears that he intends to remain China’s paramount leader for life. Naming someone who could be viewed as a possible successor to the Politburo’s Standing Committee could ease pressure on Xi. Since Jiang Zemin’s last term (2002-2007), CPC has identified and “groomed” a leading candidate for China’s leadership for five years ahead of their ascent to the top office. Both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping were chosen and trained through this process before they came to power.

            This speculation was rendered moot by the CPC’s release of a communique following the Fourth Plenum. No Politburo member was elevated to the 7-man Standing Committee. This indicates that either Xi has faced no pressure from the Party, indicating that the CPC is largely pleased with his leadership, or that Xi has succeeded in fending off any effort to identify his potential successors at the next Party Congress, at least for now. Other parts of the communique support the impression that the CPC would like to maintain the status quo, as no changes were made to anything decided at the 19th Party Congress.

            The Fourth Plenum was stated as being aimed towards “upholding and improving the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the modernization of China’s system and capacity for governance.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that improving governance is a central aspect of Xi’s political philosophy, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” and remarks, “To have a plenary session specifically focus on a key component of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is a strong signal that Xi continues to strengthen his hold on power.” CSIS also rejects the idea that Xi may be facing criticism over Hong Kong, slowing economic growth, and souring US-China relations, writing, “Indeed, it’s more likely that the more overt narrative of ‘great power competition’ emanating from the US has allowed Xi to push a ‘fortress besieged’ mentality back home that allows him to redirect, to some extent, criticism that would otherwise be directed his way.”

            If Xi had been facing significant internal opposition, the October 1st National Day parade would probably have looked very different, with Xi playing a relatively small role. Instead, CSIS says, Xi was “glorified, Mao-like” on China’s 70th anniversary. Xi appeared alongside his living predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and featured prominently during the parade. In the communique, the plenum hailed the parade and National Day celebration as inspiring China’s people to stay “true to the original intentions” of the PRC’s founding.

            China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that “The session reviewed and adopted the CPC Central Committee’s decision on some major issues concerning how to uphold and improve the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics and advance the modernization of China’s system and capacity for governance.” The session also praised the Politburo, the CPC, and China’s system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and system of governance. The tone of the communique was similar to that of previous plenum communiques, further reinforcing the “business as usual” impression Xi would like to send, with one notable exception.

            The communique indicates that the plenum believes long-term stability and prosperity in Hong Kong and Macau cannot be realized without adherence to the principle of One Country Two Systems as stipulated in the Basic Law. However, it seems the plenum has also issued a marching order to establish and improve legal systems and enforcement mechanisms to defend national security in the special administrative regions. No further official explanation of China’s plan has been made public, although high-ranking National People’s Congress member Shen Chunyao remarked, “We absolutely will not permit any behavior encouraging separatism or endangering national security and will resolutely guard against and contain the interference of foreign powers in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macao and their carrying out acts of separatism, subversion, infiltration and sabotage.” Shen is the head of the National People’s Congress Committee on the Basic Law (referring to the Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau), making him a crucial voice on Hong Kong affairs.

The plenum yielded little discernible change to outside observers. It seems that Xi has emerged as the biggest winner after the plenum, with his status as China’s paramount leader unchallenged for the immediate future. However, that could change as Xi approaches 2022, the year in which he was supposed to leave office after serving two terms as did his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It is unclear what specific consensus the Party reached on Hong Kong, if any. While China is clearly concerned about the continuing protests in Hong Kong, Beijing cannot afford the international condemnation and financial fallouts it would be faced with if it cracked down on the protesters. Losing Hong Kong as a financial hub would have a devastating impact on China’s already slowed economic growth. Aside from Hong Kong policy, however, it appears that Xi and current Chinese foreign policy thinking are here to stay.

Rob La Terza is an intern in The Carter Center’s China Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Carter Center.