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A Failed Meeting or a Failed Party?

An analysis of the Fifth Plenum of the Sixteenth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

There is a saying: "If you are confident that you know the Heavenly Empire, it means you don’t know it." Chinese politics has baffled generations of China scholars. The October 8-11 recently concluded Fifth Plenary Session (Plenum) of the 16th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was a typical one.

Speculations over the Plenum results have kept China analysts busy. Many think that the CCP leader, Hu Jintao, who became both the Party boss and the military chief last year, would use the meeting to consolidate his power base. Yet the critical motions proposed by Hu Jintao all suffered setbacks at the meeting. There was no sign of political reform, as many had hoped. Some committee members raised critical issues that challenged the validity of the political system. The concluding communiqué issued after the Plenum was nothing but unbridled propaganda concerning the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). There was not a single word on the shuffle of the top apparatus as many analysts had anticipated. This casts serious doubts on the boasted success of the Plenum.

During the Plenum, in contrast to the intrigue of closed-door elite politics, local CCP organizations arrested thousands of people who had come to appeal their grievances to the CCP leadership in Beijing. Mobs directed by CCP local authorities brutally beat a representative of the National People’s Congress in the remote southern village of Taishi in Guangdong Province. Although such suppression has been common occurrence in recent years, having them conspicuously exposed to the world press during the CCP Plenum cast a satirical glow on the fanfare of the Plenum theme "A Harmonious Society" and signified the overall ineffectiveness of the CCP rule.

Toppled Arrangements

It has been a CCP tradition to use the Central Committee meetings to make key personnel shifts. Deng Xiaoping twice used the fifth plenary sessions (in 1980 and 1985) to arrange for his henchmen to take up important positions.

This Fifth Plenary Session was the first Central Committee meeting since Hu Jintao became the real CCP boss, that is, being both the General Secretary and the President of the Military Commission of the CCP Central Committee. Many believed that Hu would place his trusted followers in Shanghai and Beijing, the two power centers. Early this year, Hu tried to replace Chen Liangyu, the CCP chief in Shanghai who has close ties to Jiang Zemin, with Liu Yandong, a protégé of Hu. Liu, however, declined the offer. It was rumored that Hu would try it again in the Fifth Plenary Session. In addition, Li Keqiang, the CCP chief in Liaoning Province, was rumored to be up for a new key post. The post-Plenum communiqué, however, revealed no such change. Hu’s failure to arrange for key posts indicated that Hu might have suffered setbacks in the meeting.
Another signal of the failed meeting was that all five major motions put forward by the Political Bureau of the CCP did not get onto the agenda. Those motions were all of the "Sunshine Bill" type. The bills would have required: (1) All top-level CCP officials and their family members to reveal their revenue sources; (2) All top-level CCP officials to reveal to the departments or provinces of which they are in charge the employment and education of their family members; (3) All top-level CCP officials to encourage their sons and daughters to go to work in remote areas; (4) That the CCP General Secretary at the provincial level not serve more than one term both as the CCP Secretary as well as Governor; (5) All top-level CCP officials and CCP-controlled government organizations itemize their public relations expenditures.

This suggests a powerful force against any political change within the Party. By shelving those motions, this behind-the-scenes force successfully challenged Hu Jintao’s newly established authority.

It is ironic that the CCP, a political party that has done so much economic engineering, has failed with all its political motions. In fact it would be much appreciated if the CCP would indeed focus on taking care of its affairs by formulating a five-year political agenda to rectify itself, leaving the economics to functional departments and the private sector.

The meeting also failed to exert its authority and discipline by successfully appointing the coordinators of panel groups. The Fifth Plenary Session was divided into eight discussion panels: the CCP Central Committee and Departments of the State Council, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Northeast group, the North group, the Northwest group, the Southwest group, the South group, and the East group. Of the eight panels, except for the Northwest and the PLA groups, the other six panels did not accept the coordinators the CCP Political Bureau originally appointed. Based on that fact, Hu Jintao had to admit a lack of centralized CCP authority.

The weakening of centralized CCP authority may be beyond the study of factional politics. The communiqué of the Fifth Plenary Session revealed nothing about the factional struggle. The CCP leadership deliberately left the Chinese public ill-informed about the instability within its top leadership, since leakage of a failed CCP authority could be exceedingly dangerous and lead to unexpected results for the entire CCP political system. Therefore, it became a tacit imperative for the CCP leadership to uphold a superficial consensus, for which Hu developed the official title "A Harmonious Society."
A Hollow Blueprint

A high-level CCP conference is usually a two-sided enterprise: There is a polished façade, and then there is the dirty backyard. The façade is for public relations work and entails discussions of long-term plans. The backyard is where the "dirty linen" gets hung out, typically involving the shuffling of personnel and the reallocating of seats, both of which reflect the results of muddy power struggles. For the façade, the CCP uses its propagandized media to make it center stage. As for the "dirty linen," the CCP tries to conceal it as much as possible.

The only agenda the Plenum released to the public was the 11th Five-Year Plan (FYP). After taking over power from Jiang Zemin at the 16th CCP Congress in late 2002, General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao sought to distinguish themselves from Jiang by hoisting the banner of a "Putting-People-First Leadership." The new 11th FYP crystallized their close-to-the-people approach by laying out a grandiose roadmap for the country’s "scientific development."

In this 17,000-word document, the new plan pretends to take into consideration the welfare of disadvantaged groups, the uneven development between China’s East and the West, as well as environmental concerns. The CCP proclaimed that the newly approved 11th FYP signified a transition from a "government-oriented" economy to a "market-oriented" economy and thereby merited the new title "Five Year Blueprint" (FYB).

However, an in-depth analysis shows that, by every measure, the new 11th FYB is nothing but another grandiose illusion to woo the general public.

First, the use of the FYP has failed repeatedly. The CCP imported the idea from the Soviet Communist Party. From 1953 to 2005 the CCP has executed 10 FYPs, with an interruption of three years (1958-1960) due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward. The 10 FYPs have not helped China catch up with the developed world, which has instead watched as the gap has widened. Let’s compare China with three other entities-Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao-that all share the same Chinese cultural tradition. In 1949 when the CCP took power, the four were economically at the same level. After more than 50 years, the per capita GDP for communist China is only US$1,200. The per capita GDP for the other three non-communist Chinese entities is Taiwan US$13,000 and Hong Kong and Macao each over US$20,000.

Russia stopped the failing FYP practice 14 years ago. The CCP did not. One has to wonder why a superficial term change from "FYP" to "FYB" would prevent the history of failure from repeating itself.
Secondly, the new FYB cannot ensure that it can close the gap between the rich and the poor. In recent years, this gap has widened to an unprecedented extent. According to an official Chinese estimate, China’s Gini coefficient has reached 0.47, among the top Gini scores in the world. International analysts have graded China’s Gini even higher at 0.54 (varying from zero to one with the higher number closer to socio-economic inequality).

Such a gap and the resulting dissatisfaction resulting from a sense of relative deprivation have given rise to massive riots in Chinese society. Reduction of this gap of inequality requires improvement in a social security system, which in turn requires allocating more money. However, the fundamental cause of the inequality was the notorious corruption by CCP officials that drained the money generated by the "GDP miracle." The annual cost of CCP officials’ corruption has been as high as close to 20 percent of the annual GDP. The money annually smuggled out of China, mostly by family members of high-level CCP officials, has already exceeded the annual influx of foreign investment.

The 11th FYB may help the CCP leadership to achieve high GDP rates. Yet, with the mechanism for corruption unchanged, an ever-larger pool of money will continue to flow into CCP officials’ pockets at the expense of the socially disadvantaged and the social security system. In a CCP-controlled game where both the referee and the player are on the same side, how can the socially disadvantaged and a weak social security system compete with the candid conspiracy of a CCP leadership "referee" and "players" composed of the vast majority of greedy CCP officials?

Thirdly, the 11th FYB failed to lay out the details of how to promote social equality among a total of 900 million rural inhabitants. The blueprint included at least five subsections detailing rural policies. The CCP seized national power largely due to the support of peasants. Since the communist regime came into power, however, it has never given peasants land as promised. "Rural collectives" rather than individual peasants own land in the countryside, as stipulated by law. The local CCP officials have been using this murky ownership situation to sell land-use rights to urban developers, in which members of the "Iron Triangle"— the CCP government officials, bankers (appointed CCP officials) and developers — share the booty. To the victor go the spoils! The peasants are the helpless victims. The new blueprint did not address this core issue at all.

While the new FYB promised to help implement democratic management in the rural areas, there were few details on how to realize this rosy promise. In fact, the local CCP officials in townships and villages are powerfully opposed to those policies. Peasants call those CCP officials "bandits" to allude to roving rebel bands led by the CCP guerrilla forces during the years of "revolution." Those officials are beneficiaries of the CCP rule and have developed various formal and informal taxes to exploit the peasants. They have every vested interest in fending off rural democracy to protect their autocratic kingdoms. It would be impossible to carry out the proposed policies without eradicating the entire CCP apparatus at the local level.
This points to a core irony: Is it possible for the top CCP leadership to remove its local power base to consolidate the central power? The answer, as evidenced by an incident that occurred in the middle of the Fifth Plenary Session, is "No." On October 9, a delegate to the local People’s Congress was brutally beaten while trying to investigate an election in the village of Taishi. A reporter from the U.K.-based newspaper The Guardian and an interpreter accompanied the delegate. The purpose of the organized brutality was to threaten the villagers of Taishi, who had tried to oust their corrupt chief and elect their own local leaders. The incident was just one of a million such incidents in villages all over China. That the Plenum tolerates such persecution makes a mockery of its proposal for rural democracy.

In sum, without transforming the norms of the totalitarian CCP, it is highly doubtful that mere terminology modification in the new "FYB" will lead to a market-driven socio-economic boost to drastically reduce long-existing social inequalities. In light of the elite power struggle, the new FYB is just another political tactic to attack by innuendo the previous "GDP worship" of Jiang’s developmental model.

Dong Li holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University. He is a China specialist who provides news analysis for New Tang Dynasty Television based in New York City.