Reading the forecast from China’s sixth plenum

It is evident that the Chinese leadership is determined to withstand pressure on it to alter its attitude and policies

November 18, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 01:40 pm IST

Glass Chinese shiny flag, made for a black background.

Glass Chinese shiny flag, made for a black background.

The Sixth Plenary Session or Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) which concluded on November 11, 2021, proved to be a true curtain-raiser for next year’s 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The communiqué issued after the Plenum is specially significant, in as much for what it states as for what it portends.

Providing insights

The contents of the resolution adopted at the Plenum have a special significance, as it is only the third ‘historical resolution’ passed by the Party in the 100 years of its existence. Among the concrete outcomes of the Plenum that need mentioning is the decision to convene the 20th Party Congress in 2022, but the Plenum will be remembered more for providing an insight into the evolving shape of the CPC as it completes 100 years of its existence.

In keeping with the kind of hyperbole normally associated with any CPC Plenum, the communiqué states that the 20th Congress would be held at an important time when the Party had ‘embarked upon a new journey to build a modern socialist country and realize the Party’s Second Centenary Goal’. Another claim made is that the Party had fundamentally transformed the future of the Chinese people who had been freed from oppression and subjugation and become the ‘masters of the country’. Furthermore, that this development had a profound influence on the course of world history. Adding to the paean of praise regarding the Party’s rule, the Plenum observed that ‘it had pioneered a unique Chinese modern path to modernization and created a new model of human advancement, launching a new journey to build a modern socialist country in all respects’. The communiqué highlights Chinese President Xi Jinping’s core position on the Central Committee and in the Party, and his role in leading the Chinese people on a new journey to realise the Second Centenary Goal.

Elevating Xi as helmsman

Interpreting the contents of the ‘historical resolution’, what appears most significant is the elevation of Xi Jinping to the position of helmsman, thus bringing him on a par with Mao Zedong, and ahead of Deng Xiaoping. Xi Jinping’s ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ now appears to rank alongside Mao Zedong Thought, and eclipses ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’. It clearly sends into oblivion both Jiang Zemin’s ‘Theory of Three Represents’ and Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’.

The Plenum document affirms that Xi Jinping Thought contains a series of original ideas, revolving around the major questions of our time; what kind of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics should be upheld and developed; what kind of Marxist Party should be developed; as well as how the Party should go about achieving these tasks. It reiterates time and again, that the Party had established Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party, and that this reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces and the Chinese people.

The message from the Sixth Plenum is loud and clear. Collective leadership of the kind favoured by Deng Xiaoping, and to which his two immediate successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao largely adhered, has come to an end. The limits placed on leadership terms by Deng Xiaoping, viz. , two terms, have been given the go by. Mr. Xi appears set to continue without any restrictions being placed on the number of years he can remain in office. Ideological rigidity will, and has already, replaced the limited flexibility that was seen during the period under Deng and his two immediate successors — though Deng himself had faltered on this count following the Tiananmen Square incident.

For the West to ponder over

By temperament, Mr. Xi appears unlikely to follow the Great Helmsman Mao’s example and embark on hazardous exploits such as (Mao’s) Great Leap Forward. Notwithstanding this, having been crowned as the unchallenged leader and further fortified by the fact that there were no term limits, it could provoke erratic behaviour. This is particularly likely in the event of fresh problems arising in China, including for instance, a persistent economic downturn after almost three decades of continuous growth. The events of June 2020, when China carried out an unprovoked act of aggression against India in Ladakh, may not, however, be a proper example of this, but it should serve as a timely reminder of what can happen. Hence, the situation is fraught with many possibilities.

This should not mean that going forward, China is likely to act more erratically than hitherto, a view held by many leaders across the world, specially those in the West. The absence of ideological flexibility or need for pragmatism, need not necessarily translate into China becoming more impulsive or irrational. Over centralisation of power can, no doubt, result in new fragilities, but the current policy followed by the West of ‘strategic confrontation and economic decoupling’ may not yield the kind of results they seek. The Chinese economy may not be performing as well today as it has been wont to in the past three decades, but an erroneous belief that support for the leadership of the CPC rests solely on economic success would be a mirage, which the West seems to harbour. An economic downturn in China could create problems, but it would be foolhardy to believe that the rule of the Communist oligarchy in China rests solely on this narrow or brittle plank.

Wider support base for CPC

Reading between the lines of the communiqué issued after the recent Plenum, it is evident that the leadership in China is determined to go to any extent to withstand pressure on it to alter its attitude and policies. The rest of the world may also need to come to terms with the claim — however bizarre it may seem — made by the Communist oligarchy in China that it governs with the consent of the majority. The CPC has probably a wider support base than most governments headed by dictators who have seized power through various means, and also possibly more than many ruling parties in quite a few democracies. The reasons for this are both historical and ideological, and the more the West carries on a rant against the Chinese leadership, the more the Chinese people are likely to be reminded of their humiliation in the past at the hands of the West. This only bolsters grass-root support for the Communist Party leadership.

Given all this, it may not be too far wrong to think that the Chinese leadership believes in effect that it has in place an alternate type of representative government, though one that is very different from that practised in democracies. Data collected by various sources also indicate that a lack of liberalised policies has not undermined faith in the Beijing government among ordinary Chinese citizens. This is something that the rest of the world needs to ponder over. Consequently, the West may be making a grave mistake in believing that a mere lack of political freedoms — as understood in democracies — automatically translates into opposition to the leadership.

Strategy for India

For India, and its policy planners, these issues are hardly academic. With India being increasingly drawn into an anti-China phalanx led by the United States, the question uppermost should be whether some changes in policy need to be effected, given that Mr. Xi’s current rule over China appears to be carved in stone. How best to deal with China’s idiosyncrasies under Mr. Xi, involves opening a debate on whether to effect a change in strategy or continue with the present policy of confrontation based to a large extent on western attitudes and beliefs.

An additional problem for India is that across large parts of Asia, most countries faced with a choice between China and India, may be inclined to side with Beijing due to various exigencies. With the exception of Pakistan and Cambodia (which are near-client states of China), none of the others have any particular affection for China, but are compelled by circumstances to lean more towards China than India (which might otherwise have been their natural choice). In the circumstances, India could well take a hard look — given that Mr. Xi’s rule in China is likely to continue for not merely another five years, but for much longer — as to whether it should devise a different strategy to subserve India’s best interests.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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