The Chinese Communist Party has issued just its third ever ‘resolution on history’ – confirming President Xi Jinping’s influence and China’s economic and global ambition, writes Jason Young

Before the closing plenary of the historic UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, China’s ruling party had begun its own plenum in Beijing. The tone of the two events was understandably quite different, though both were at pains to signal an era of momentous historical change.

For participants at COP26, the issue was the shared existential challenge brought on by climate change. For China’s ruling party, the focus was preparing for what was described as “great change unseen in a century” and on further strengthening the party’s role.

As the only ruling party in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949, Communist Party of China (CPC) plenums are an important signal of the country’s political direction.

The CPC is the paramount political organisation in China, where major political decisions are made and where political, economic, and even social and cultural power reside.

Chinese officials describe the PRC model as a “whole-process socialist democracy”. The PRC Constitution refers to a system of “democratic centralism” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship”. Most significantly, it states, “The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

This is a clear point of difference with liberal democracies and the underlying reason for PRC omission from the United States-led Summit for Democracy scheduled for this December.

Every five years, the CPC holds its national congress to set policy and put in place leadership positions within the party. A few months later, the National People’s Congress (the PRC legislature) meets and mimics these changes in personnel and policy.

In between, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) has more regular plenums. Sixth plenums (seven plenums are usually held over the five years) tend to focus on party building and ideology. They serve as a bellwether for the direction of the party and therefore the state in years ahead.

This year, the sixth plenum issued the “Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century”. This is only the third CPC resolution on history, with the first occurring under Mao Zedong in 1945 and the second under Deng Xiaoping in 1981. The purpose of these resolutions is to “unite the thinking of the entire party and achieve a new unity”.

The resolution is underpinned by historical materialism and the “laws of historical development”. It seeks to frame history to shape future action. It promotes Marxism for the 21st century (not Maoism) and seeks to meld the first 30 years of the PRC with the second.

It points strongly to the next 100 years of continued party supremacy and to China becoming a strong power by its centennial in 2049.

The resolution paints Xi Jinping as the leader for this “new journey”, suggesting he will remain in power past the (relatively new) tradition of leaders holding only two five-year terms. It goes to great pains to paint the current environment as one where Xi and Xi Jinping Thought are indispensable.

This is likely to be an ongoing theme for the next year leading to the 20th National Congress, and then on to the National People’s Congress in 2023.

While Xi could still lose support within the party, the strengthened focus on loyalty and the conflation of China’s interests with the CPC and Xi suggest that would now be a dramatic change of course.

The resolution strikes a confident tone about China’s socialist model, suggesting growing confidence within the CPC about China’s international position. The disjoint between this tone and views outside the PRC will have significant implications for foreign relations in the coming years.

The historical resolution and sixth plenum are not only a manifesto for ongoing party dominance with Xi at the helm, though they certainly are that, but also a call for the PRC to achieve by 2049 global power and influence commensurate to its economic rise.

In New Zealand, we are slowly coming to terms with the systemic shift brought on by climate change. We’re also learning to deal with the PRC as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, and to understand the implications of new era policy conceived of as bringing about “great change unseen in a century”.

Associate Professor Jason Young is director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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