Is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally putting systems and institutions before the rule of personality? The much-delayed Fourth Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee, an annual meeting of about 300 top cadres that wrapped up on October 31, passed a “Decision on Some Major Issues Concerning How to Uphold and Improve the System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and to Advance the Modernization of China’s Governance System and Capacity for Governance” (hereafter “Decision”). The communique of the plenary session of the Central Committee said that by the year 2049, China would “fully realize the modernization of the state governance system and governance capacity.” By that time, the whole society would “boost systemic governance, governance according to the law, coordinated governance, [and] ‘governance at the source’” (源头治理, yuantou zhili), so that China’s “institutional superiority” would be even better transformed into state governance capacity (China Daily, November 6; Xinhua, October 31).
Official commentators have characterized the modernization of governance systems as China’s “Fifth Modernization” (after the “Four Modernizations” of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense). According to Han Xu, a politics expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “the internal need for modernizing the state governance system has provided a ‘chemical reaction’ [in the form of a] catalyst for institutional reform.” Han added that China urgently needed a “responsive government” that would respond to the “strong demands of the people in the areas of democracy, rule of law, equality, justice, the environment and security” (DWNews.com, October 30; HK01.com, October 28; Chinanews.com, July 15).
The Historical “Struggle Between Two Lines” in CCP Governance
The long trajectory of CCP history has demonstrated the “struggle between two lines” (两条路线斗争, liang tiao luxian douzheng)—that is, ruling the country via institutions and systems versus the rule of personality. According to a November Xinhua commentary, the CCP needed to “build a systemic foundation for China’s long reign and perennial stability.” The commentary revealed that in his famous “southern tour” in 1992, Deng Xiaoping expressed the hope that “in 30 years’ time, we will establish more mature, more consolidated systems and institutions in different sectors” (Qstheory.cn, November 7).
In his landmark 1980 speech entitled “The Reform of the Leadership System of the Party and State,” Chief Architect of Reform Deng castigated Mao-style cult of personality in favor of institutions that could be approved by the people. “A good system means bad people can’t do as they please,” Deng said. “A bad system means good people cannot fully do good. There is even a possibility they might be forced to do the opposite.” Apart from abrogating life tenure and putting into place a system of succession, Deng also advocated some degree of the separation of party and government, as well as the separation of party and economic enterprises. In the latter case, a firm’s board of directors and professional managers, not party functionaries, would be its highest decision-makers (CCTV News, September 16, 1980; People’s Daily, August 18, 1980).
The Fourth Plenum “Decision” Points Towards Further Centralization of Power
However, the communique of the Fourth Plenum paid no attention to “responsive institutions or systems” that emphasize the supervisory or at least participatory role of the people. This is despite the “Decision” having indicated that modernization of the governance system must incorporate “thought liberation, seeking truth from facts, and upholding reform and innovation.” The main thrust of the “Decision” was “upholding and improving the institutions and systems of party leadership… so that party leadership will be applied to all arenas, all aspects and all sectors of state governance.” In fact, the “Decision” gave the impression that the institutions and systems to be modernized are all geared toward boosting party authority: “We must improve and resolutely uphold different institutions that safeguard the authority of the central [party authorities] and its concentrated and unified leadership… We must perfect the system of the party’s overall leadership.” That the role of ordinary party members or citizens is minimal can be seen from the document’s insistence on the “major institutional guarantee of [the party’s] self-purification, self-perfection, self-reform and self-enhancement” (Xinhua, November 1; Xinhua, October 31).
If the goal of the modernization of the governance system is the enhancement of one-party dictatorship—and if leadership must be exercised in a “concentrated and unified” fashion—then most of the decision-making powers will accrue to party chief Xi Jinping, the acknowledged “lifelong hexin” (核心, “core”) of the party, who is expected to rule as General Secretary until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032. One recalls statements made by Xi protégé Li Zhanshu, Chairman of the National People’s Congress, that Xi has the power to yichuidingyin (一锤定音) and dingyuyizun (定于一尊), or “set the final tone and make the ultimate top-level decisions” (China News Service, July 17, 2018; New York Times Chinese Edition, March 20, 2018).
Indeed, “Decision” emphasized that modernization of institutions must dovetail with the goal of “the fourfold consciousness” (“political consciousness, consciousness of the entire situation [of the country], consciousness about [obeying the] hexin, and consciousness about seeing in unison with the hexin”). Another goal cited by the “Decision” is that party members must “resolutely uphold Xi Xinjing’s hexin status in the party… and resolutely safeguard the authority as well as the concentrated and united leadership of the party central authorities” (People’s Daily, November 8; New Evening Post, October 24). But if institutional reform means upholding the unquestioned authority of a hexin, this is much more akin to Mao-style rule of man rather than modernized institutional rule.
Other Policy Issues Addressed at the Fourth Plenum: Trade Disputes and Hong Kong
Apart from theoretical issues, the Fourth Plenum also touched on three main pressing questions: the state of the economy, China-U.S. relations, and the Hong Kong imbroglio. A key reason underpinning the fact that economic growth has dropped to the lowest point in recent decades is that the state sector—including close to 100 state-owned enterprise (SOE) conglomerates—continues to underperform despite being given monopolistic status. The plenum communique noted that the party-state must “uphold the public sector as the mainstay” of the economy (China-cer.com.cn, November 8; Jiefang Daily, November 8).
Moreover, senior departments—such as the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, as well as the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection—have used Cultural Revolution-style language when they scolded market-oriented SOEs for “building their own empires.” Trusted SOEs are being encouraged to take over star performers among private enterprises under the so-called model of gongsiheying (公私合营) or “public-private co-ownership” of the 1950s. There was apparently no opposition from Central Committee members against this transgression of Deng’s “separation of party and enterprises” dictum (Ming Pao, October 24; Radio Free Asia, August 5).
Surprisingly, there was no mention of the Sino-U.S. disputes over trade and other issues in the Communique. What many China specialists have characterized as an inchoate new Cold War between the two most powerful countries in the world is in fact a clash of models. While it is true that President Trump is happy that Beijing is buying more American farm produce to lower Beijing’s trade surplus, what the Trump leadership wants is a remodeling of the Chinese party-state’s tight control over the economy. The Americans have been demanding that the Chinese government stop or curtail its vast subsidies to exporters and to the high-tech sector, as well as alleged state-sponsored theft of the intellectual property of Western multinationals (HKO1.com, September 26; South China Morning Post, August 27). However, Xi emphasized in his plenum speech that all institutional reforms must dovetail with the “Chinese spirit, Chinese values and Chinese forces”—an unlikely sign of willingness to accept American demands.
There was ample discussion of Hong Kong during the conclave. It has been suggested that the protests since early June have been the result of the Xi leadership undermining the institution of “one country, two systems” by quashing such core values of the special administrative region (SAR) as freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary. A basic demand of the demonstrators is that Beijing lives up to its promises, made at the time of the handover of British sovereignty to the Chinese in 1997, that the SAR be allowed to enjoy universal suffrage elections when picking the city’s Chief Executive.
Instead, the “Decision” has doubled down on state security issues, stating that the “SAR must establish and perfect legal systems and execution mechanisms [so as] to safeguard national security.” This has led to heavy speculation that Beijing will soon introduce the much-feared Article 23 National Security Legislation—the prospect of which was behind the half-a-million person demonstration on July 1, 2003. Remarks made by Shen Chunyao, a senior NPC official in charge of the Legislative Affairs Commission, that Beijing would “improve [the institution of] the NPC Standing Committee interpreting the Basic Law [on Hong Kong],” have also raised suspicions—namely, that Article 23 might become law simply through an NPC interpretation, without going through the Legislative Council of the SAR (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], November 5; South China Morning Post, November 1; China Daily, November 1).
In an October article in the CCP’s official theoretical journal Seeking Truth, entitled “We Must Persevere in Pushing Forward the New Great Engineering in Party Construction,” Xi revisited the question of “historical cycles.” Shortly after coming to power in 2012, Xi had raised the issue of why dynasties inevitably collapsed after reigns of various lengths. Historical cycles, he said in his Seeking Truth essay, are “the fate that feudalistic empires cannot shake off in our history” (Xinhua, October 2). During his meeting with respected pro-democratic scholar Huang Yanpei in 1945, Mao Zedong had asked Huang the same question. Huang upheld the theory of the inevitable boom-and-bust cycles of feudalistic regimes. Yet Mao retorted: “But we have found a new road which can enable us to jump out of this cycle. This new path is called democracy” (China.com.cn, February 27, 2016; People’s Daily, October 24, 2013).
Despite the apparent awareness of Xi and his advisers that the CCP must come up with viable institutions and systems—which need to be periodically scrutinized and endorsed by the people—the “lifelong hexin” has opted for well-nigh unchecked powers and privileges. Moreover, the corollary of putting the rule of man over the rule of law and institutions is that Beijing can’t go very far in solving problems—ranging from the economy and Sino-U.S. relations, to the imbroglio into which Hong Kong has been plunged.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in July 2019.