The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo held two official meetings in December 2020, both of which were publicized after the fact by official summaries presented in government outlets. The first of these was a “collective study” session held in the first half of the month, focused on the theme of correctly handling the various aspects of “national security work.” The second, held in the last week of December, was an annual “democratic life meeting” traditionally convened by the Politburo at the end of each year. In a pattern that has now become a standard component of the cult of personality surrounding CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, official summaries of these meetings invariably describe Xi as the center of attention and the font of knowledge for his fellow Politburo-level officials: these accounts typically state that Xi “chaired the meeting and gave an important speech” (主持会议并发表重要讲话, zhuchi huiyi bing fabiao zhongyao jianghua) to explain the concepts under discussion to more junior Politburo members.
Accounts of the meetings in December adhered to this pattern, reinforcing ideological formulae and slogans advanced by the CCP propaganda apparatus throughout 2020. Particularly prominent themes from the December meetings focused on the importance of “political security,” as well as the need for party members to adhere to “political consciousness” and the correct “political orientation” in performing their duties. These propaganda themes provide further evidence of the Xi leadership circle’s continuing preoccupation with the potential dangers posed by a loss of ideological faith among party members, as well as the ongoing drive to centralize authority ever-more firmly around Xi and the central party leadership (China Brief, December 31, 2019). The year-end meeting also produced oblique language that hinted at a further effort by the central leadership to reinforce control over personnel appointments in the party apparatus from the provincial level on down (see discussion below).
The Politburo’s “Collective Study” Session on National Security Work
On December 11, the Politburo convened for its seventh and final “collective study” (集体学习, jiti xuexi) session of the year (CCP Party Member Net, undated). The official theme of December’s meeting was the more effective implementation of “New Era National Security Work” (新时代国家安全工作, Xinshidai Guojia Anquan Gongzuo). Politburo collective study sessions often include an expert lecturer: in this case, the guest speaker was Yuan Peng (袁鹏), the director of the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) (中国现代国际关系研究院, Zhongguo Xiandai Guoji Guanxi Yanjiuyuan), a branch of the PRC Ministry of State Security that maintains a public face as a government think tank. The specifics of Yuan’s presentation were not provided, other to say that he “offered work suggestions” related to a “comprehensive national security outlook” (总体国家安全观, zongti guojia anquan guan) embracing economic planning, ideology, and both domestic and international security issues (CCP Party Net, December 11).
The official summary of Xi Jinping’s comments noted ten requirements for national security, in which the theme of “political security” (政治安全, zhengzhi anquan)—thinly coded language for maintaining the ruling position of the CCP—played a prominent role. The first of Xi’s ten principles was to “insist upon the party’s absolute leadership over national security work” (坚持党对国家安全工作的绝对领导, jianchi dang dui guojia anquan gongzuo de juedui lingdao). The second principle was to “adhere to the path of national security with Chinese characteristics… [with] the people’s security as the goal, and political security as the foundation” (政治安全为根本, zhengzhi anquan wei genben). The fifth item on the list was the admonition to “insist upon keeping political security in the chief position, upholding regime security and system security” (坚持把政治安全放在首要位置, 维护政权安全和制度安全 / jianchi ba zhengzhi anquan fang zai shouyao weizhi, weihu zhengquan anquan he zhidu anquan) (CCP Party Net, December 11).
The Politburo’s “Democratic Life” Session on “Political Orientation”
On December 24-25, the Politburo convened again for a “democratic life meeting” (民主生活会, minzhu shenghuo hui). This meeting is a traditional end-of-year event for the Politburo, normally held in late December. “Democratic life meetings” have a long tradition within the CCP: in theory, they are to function
as a mechanism for improving party discipline and governance, in which CCP members undertake self-criticism and provide constructive criticism of both party practices and other CCP members. In reality, the Politburo-level democratic life meetings have functioned as yet another venue for Xi Jinping to reinforce his position via symbolic displays of fealty offered by other senior-level CCP officials (China Brief, January 29, 2020).
The December 24-25 meeting took as its theme “Seriously Studying Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” (认真学习习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想, Renzhen Xuexi Xi Jinping Xinshidai Zhongguo Tese Shehui Zhuyi Sixiang). The official summary of the two-day meeting depicted the participation of other Politburo members in obsequious terms, which were richly ironic in consideration of the supposedly “democratic” nature of the event. Per the official account, prior to the meeting Politburo members prepared by having “heart-to-heart talks” (谈心谈话, tanxin tanhua) centered around the meeting’s themes, and prepared speeches accordingly. The summary stated that:
The comrades of the Politburo connected in regards to Politburo work, touched upon each person’s thoughts and practical work experience, [and] connected in regards to setting an example in strictly executing Politburo regulations concerning strengthening and upholding the concentrated and unified leadership of the party center… [They further] connected in regards to setting an example in their practical experience of implementing General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions and the party center’s policies… [and] implementing rules and regulations and resolving outstanding problems of formalism… [and] conducting self-examination [and] party spirit analysis, [and] engaging in criticism and self-criticism (PRC Ministry of Civil Affairs, December 25, 2020).
Even more than the December 11 meeting, the December 24-25 meeting focused heavily on the theme of political loyalty, with the official account offering repeated admonitions ad nauseum regarding the need for senior party members to set an example in displaying the correct “political orientation” (政治方向, zhengzhi fangxiang) and “political consciousness” (政治意识, zhengzhi yishi) in the performance of their duties. The following excerpts provide a partial list of examples from the official summary:
- “The speeches of the Politburo comrades… [emphasized] setting an example in studying and implementing Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era [and] firmly grasping the correct political orientation… [by] strengthening the ‘Four Consciousnesses’, [keeping] steadfast in the ‘Four Confidences’, [and] accomplishing the ‘Two Upholds’.” 
- Party members “must strengthen political consciousness, maintain political concentration, grasp political orientation, undertake political responsibilities, enhance political ability; [and] dare to struggle, be good at struggling…”
- Party members “must strengthen political consciousness, be good at seeing problems from a political perspective, be good at grasping the political situation, [and] unceasingly improve political judgment, political comprehension, [and] political implementation ability.”
The official account also provided a summation of Xi’s comments to the Politburo. Among the more interesting of these comments was the admonition for Politburo members to thoroughly internalize the correct “political orientation” into their own thinking:
Xi Jinping pointed out that… concentrating on politics is a distinctive characteristic of a Marxist political party, and is also a political superiority that pervades all aspects of our party. The party leads the people in governing the country, [and] the most important [aspect of this] is maintaining the correct political orientation, from start to finish maintaining our party’s political essential nature, [and] from start to finish following the path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Politburo comrades must… be good at examining and solving problems from a political perspective, [and] take initiative in transforming political discussion from an external requirement into an internal [one]. (emphasis added)
Demands for Loyalty to the Party Center—and Hints of Further Shake-Ups in the Party Bureaucracy
In case one might somehow miss the underlying message of all of this, the official summary makes it clear that the correct political orientation is one of absolute loyalty to Xi and the “party center” (党中央, dang zhongyang). In summarizing Xi’s comments, the official account of the “democratic life” meeting indicated the supreme leader’s emphasis that “[I]n speaking of politics [one] must heighten political understanding… Leading cadres, especially high-level leading cadres, bear political responsibility [and] must deeply study the spirit of the party center… using the party center spirit to analyze the situation… [and] from start to finish maintain a high level of unity with the party center.”
Amid the heavy propaganda jargon surrounding the December 24-25 session, one of the most intriguing aspects of the official summary is a brief passage contained near the very end of the text. Once again citing Xi’s speech, this passage indicated that, beginning in 2021, party leadership positions from the provincial level down (i.e., provincial, city, county, and township) would “successively begin centralized term-end leadership changes” (陆续开始集中换届, luxu kaishi jizhong huanjie). As part of this, senior cadres were directed to “set an example in adhering to term-end leadership change regulations,” and to guide party members in “strictly abiding by political discipline and political rules [and] organizational and personnel regulations.”
The meaning of this brief, cryptic passage is unclear. It is possible that this was merely a perfunctory reference to routine, periodic reevaluations and reassignments of provincial and local-level officials. It could also signal national-level CCP leadership intent to enforce the provisions of the Chinese Communist Party Regulations for Grassroots Organization Elections Work (中国共产党基层组织选举工作条例, Zhongguo Gongchandang Jiceng Zuzhi Xuanju Gongzuo Tiaoli), a directive on party organizational affairs issued by the CCP Central Committee in July (Xinhua, July 20, 2020). However, this passage—in the context of repeated demands for loyalty to the central authorities, and the admonition to “abide by political discipline” in the midst of these personnel reassignments—could also portend a more ambitious effort by Xi to further tighten control over (and more vigorously purge) the lower echelons of the nationwide party bureaucracy.
The official accounts of the two Politburo meetings in December are but the latest examples in an intensive and ongoing state propaganda campaign—one intended to reinforce ideological indoctrination among Communist Party members, as well as to support the increasing centralization of power around the “party center.” In this respect, the accounts of these meetings—and in particular, the descriptions of obsequious behavior by Politburo members towards General Secretary Xi during the “democratic life” sessions—fully fit an ongoing pattern. However, the signaling of a potentially wide-reaching shake-up in the party hierarchy is a newer development—and one that could further explain the incessant demands for loyalty to Xi, and obedience to directives from the central party authorities. The methods and outcomes of “centralized term-end leadership changes” within the CCP bureaucratic ranks will be another subject well-worth watching as 2021 unfolds.
John Dotson is a former editor of China Brief, and currently an independent researcher and writer on Chinese political and security affairs.
 For an explanation of the meaning behind these ideological slogans, see: John Dotson, “The CCP Politburo Reviews Revised Regulations for Party Affairs” (CACR Blog, November 2020), footnote #1. https://www.ccpwatch.org/single-post/the-ccp-politburo-reviews-revised-regulations-for-party-affairs.