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United States
DateNovember 17, 2021
ByBenjamin Cooper
ServicePublic Affairs
Reading time8mins

The Sixth Plenum: China’s leadership adopts new historical resolution for only the third time in 100 years

Last week, the Chinese leadership gathered for the sixth plenary session of the 19th Party Congress from November 8-11. Commonly known as the Sixth Plenum, the four-day meetings saw the Central Committee, comprised of more than 300 top party members, adopt a rare resolution on the “major achievements and historical experience” of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the 100 years since its founding as well as its “future directions.”

The Central Committee also passed a resolution to hold the 20th Party Congress in the second half of 2022, with next year marking the conclusion of China’s latest half-decade political cycle. This will see a significant shakeup in the Chinese leadership occur as some senior officials retire and others move up in the political hierarchy.

Historic juncture on China’s road to achieving “national rejuvenation”

The sixth plenums are often notable for unveiling significant planned changes in China’s future course of development – essentially, closing the page on one chapter and opening another. Over the course of their five-year terms, the CPC’s governing Central Committee holds seven plenary sessions, meeting at least annually to assess China’s political and socio-economic development. The sixth plenums usually focus on ideology and CCP affairs.

However, this year’s elite conclave was even more important than usual as it took place at a critical historic juncture in the CPC’s plans to achieve “national rejuvenation” through two centennial goals. After President Xi announced in July that the first goal of building a “moderately prosperous society” had been completed, China has now embarked on its official journey towards realizing the second goal of becoming a “great modern socialist country” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC – with 2035 as the halfway point on that national drive.

A landmark new resolution further strengthens President Xi’s legacy

As only the third such document enacted by the world’s largest political organization, the new resolution elevated President Xi’s status in the CPC’s history and laid the groundwork for him to secure a landmark third term in office next year. The first two proclamations were passed in 1945 and 1981 under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, respectively the founder of the PRC and the architect of China’s reform and opening up.

After unveiling the new resolution, President Xi is now enshrined as a crucial historical figure on par with the two former paramount leaders, providing an important boost to his legacy. Notably, the communique adopted at the Sixth Plenum credited President Xi for the first time in an official document as the “principal founder” of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. The governance principles outlined in the president’s eponymous ideology were first included in the CPC Constitution at the 19th Party Congress in late 2017.

Describing the three major chapters in China’s historic development, the communique underscored how the country has “achieved the tremendous transformation from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong.” Looking ahead, it called for China to forge ahead on the “new journey that lies before us in the new era” and fulfill the second centenary goal by 2049. This new era has been highlighted by the Chinese leadership for years, of course, but the Sixth Plenum’s historical resolution appears to mark China’s official entry into it. 

Navigating a shifting business landscape in China’s new era

For companies, the Sixth Plenum carried important implications for China’s future trade and investment policies and continued integration with the global economy. However, the focus was on reiterating the broad rhetorical brushstrokes charting China’s future course rather than unveiling any new detailed policies; those will come later.

The communique began by highlighting how the Chinese leadership “unanimously agreed that the external environment has grown increasingly complex and grave over the past year” as a result of the “combined impact of worldwide changes of a scale unseen in a century and the global coronavirus pandemic,” while noting that China has also been contending with the challenges of keeping Covid-19 under control domestically as well as continuing to advance socio-economic development. In particular, the emphasis on the much more complicated global environment in which China is now operating appears to be an indirect reference to its intensifying competition with the U.S. and others.

In the “new era,” Chinese authorities can be expected to further intensify efforts to build a more self-reliant, sustainable, and inclusive economy at home, while pursuing an increasingly assertive and muscular foreign policy abroad that reflects the country’s continually expanding weight in the global economy. The communique called for the CPC to “apply the new development philosophy, foster a new pattern of development, and promote high-quality development” and emphasized that authorities should “deepen reform and opening up across the board, promote common prosperity for all, and build up our country’s strength in science and technology.”

Going forward, the dramatic overhaul of China’s business landscape that has been unfolding since last year – with a series of regulatory interventions targeting the technology, private education, and real-estate sectors – will continue to reverberate across the economy. In particular, the concept of achieving “common prosperity” will be at the heart of the official economic agenda. After decades of rapid growth led to widening socioeconomic divides, the government has been increasingly focused on addressing those inequalities by creating a more even distribution of wealth and income. This will almost certainly see heightened intervention continue in areas of the economy viewed as being part of the problem rather than the solution.

Discussing “common prosperity” at a concluding press conference on the Sixth Plenum’s guiding principles, a senior official stressed that, “enterprises must operate legally and honestly, treat employees kindly and create wealth, which is the right way for business.” It will be critical for companies to demonstrate their support for the national movement towards “common prosperity” and not be perceived as a hindrance to it. Otherwise, they could face serious risks to their future business prospects in China.

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