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Plenums, Plans, Centenary Goals, and the Chinese Dream

Today is the start of the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee. This week, 200 old dudes and a previously agreed upon number of token women delegates (optics, optics, optics!) are meeting to nod approvingly in unison as somebody reads to them in a steady, soothing monotone.

As Mike Forsythe writes in the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog:

These secretive conclaves, open to only a few members of the state news media, endorse the leadership’s policy plans and make key personnel appointments.

It would be a mistake to discount these gatherings, known as plenums. The ruling Politburo and the leaders of the powerful Central Military Commission are drawn from this body and, throughout the 66-year history of Communist rule in China, plenums have been the scene of momentous decisions that changed the course of the nation’s history.

Bill Bishop’s latest Sinocism newsletter has a nice rundown of the personnel rumor mill. Since nobody really knows anything and the CPC is more likely to confirm a mass outbreak of nasal herpes among the delegates than give away who might be in or out by the end of the week, I’m happy to let Bill do the handicapping:

Lots of rumors about interesting personnel moves at this Plenum, information even more tightly held now so hard to put much stock in any. Among the moves heavily rumored: a promotion for Liu Yuan onto the CMC (some even say in a re-instituted post of Secretary General of the CMC (though that was the rumor before the 4th Plenum too and it did not happen); Replacement of Han Zheng as Party Secretary (though that rumor has been aorund for over a year as well, possible changes to retirement age to allow Wang Qishan to stay through the 19th Party Congress (also been around for a while, so…)

Early reports are however that many Central Committee members will be ordering new business cards in the coming weeks.

Then there is the Five-Year Plan, now in its 13th incarnation.

A relic of a happier, simpler, time of centralized economic planning, the Five-Year Plans set goals and targets for economic development and establish directions for growth over, theoretically, a five-year period.* Over the years, they have ranged from “reasonably well thought out” to “wildly optimistic” to the economic equivalent of “Giving tequila to a three-year old and letting him steer daddy’s car home.”

In a neat piece of media prognostication being ordered to come true, Xinhua this week announced triumphantly that the nation is still on track to meet the Five-Year Plan goals they announced back in 2011, adding that:

“Voices concerning China’s economy like ‘hard landing’ and ‘collapse’ were often heard in the past five years, but they can all go royally fuck themselves with a spiked mallet.”

At least that’s what I think they said. You may want to check the updated story. It’s possible I am quoting an earlier draft or maybe I’m just inferring.  Either way, I’m 99% sure it’s what the Xinhua editors really WANTED to say. After all, in a blissful world of well-guided public opinion, the twin champions of socialist economic planning, “Mindless Statistics” and “Shrill Rhetoric” will forever be high-fiving each other as they “Eiffel Tower” the tired carcasses of Western imperialist nay-sayers.

A key component of both the 12th and the 13th Five-Year Plan are the centenary goals, big hairy audacious targets tied to major anniversaries in CPC history.

According to Xinhua:

The first Centenary Goal, marking the 100th anniversary of the CPC’s founding in 1921, is to double the 2010 GDP and double the 2010 income of both urban and rural residents by 2020, completing the building of a moderately prosperous society.

The second Centenary Goal, commemorating the 100th anniversary of founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, is to build a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by the middle of this century — the great renewal of the Chinese nation.

The 2021 deadline is looming and the first goal is a pretty fixed target. 2049 is a little further off in the future, and the second centenary goal is, well, a little vague. It’s like New Year’s Resolutions: 1) I will lose 10.2 kg by November and 2) I will have everybody admire me for being generally awesome in everything I do although I promise not to be a dick about it.

Or as Shannon Tiezzi, writing in the Diplomat, describes it:

2021 marks the first of China’s “two centenary goals,” pegged to the 100th anniversaries of the CCP and the People’s Republic of China. These goals were put down in writing by the 18th Party Congress in 2012 – the same Party Congress that saw Xi Jinping assume the position of China’s top leader. Xi himself linked these goals to a catchier slogan: the “Chinese dream.” In Xi’s speeches, the “two centenary goals” are often paired with the “Chinese dream” or the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” as twin aspirations. “At present, the Chinese people are striving to realize the Two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi said in July 2014.

Linking the two concepts means that there is effectively a deadline for achieving the Chinese dream. By 2021, the “dream” must be at least partially complete. That in turn means that the CCP’s political legitimacy is closely tied to reaching its self-set benchmarks in 2020. Failing to reach these goals in time for the “first centenary” would call into question the CCP’s claim that only the Party can possibly lead China toward a prosperous future.

It’s perhaps not as daft as it sounds. In a review of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, I wrote:

The central thesis of modern Chinese history is the search for a nation/state that is powerful, wealthy, and united, and a society that is both fully modern and fully Chinese. It is a difficult challenge, but I argue that since the Opium War almost every Chinese leader and intellectual has grappled with this very question. The answers about HOW to do this are often shockingly different. Chiang Kai-shek’s answer to how to accomplish this task looks very different from those proposed by Feng Guifen or Mao Zedong, but the question remains constant.

In many ways, this is the “China Dream.”

It is not surprising then that the CPC ties its legitimacy to solving this central problem. Nor should the CPC be surprised that finding the answer to this riddle poses an epic challenge. In fact, whether the CPC is around long enough to celebrate its second centenary goal will be tied to meeting this challenge which has eluded their predecessors for nearly two centuries.

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*It was sometimes tough to stick to the plan. After the disastrous Second Five-Year Plan (AKA The Great Leap Forward announced in 1958), Party research and planners seemed to take a few years off to reassess before unveiling the Third Five-Year Plan in 1966…right on schedule for the start of the Cultural Revolution. Good times!