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SIXTH PLENUM

A conclave in Beijing this week could shape Xi Jinping’s future. Here’s all you need to know

AP Photo/Andy Wong
A toast to the future.
By Zheping Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Nearly 400 top leaders from China’s ruling Communist Party are gathering in Beijing on Monday (Oct. 24) for a key meeting that will help shape the country’s leadership for years to come. Here’s a quick summary of what you need to know about the conclave.

What the heck is it?

The meeting, known as the sixth plenum, is the sixth gathering of around 370 members from the Central Committee, the Communist Party’s decision-making body, since the current leadership was selected in late 2012.

Central Committee members meet seven times during each term of five years. Each plenary session has traditionally had a fixed agenda—for example, the first focuses on major leadership appointments, and the fifth on economic development targets. The sixth plenum traditionally focuses on ideology and party management. This year, Xi Jinping, the party’s general secretary, has made the theme “comprehensively strictly governing the party,” reflecting a political theory he initiated two years ago.

The meeting is held at an exclusive hotel in Beijing away from the public eye, and will last for four days. A communique is usually published by state media on the day the session concludes.

Why does it matter?

This session is all about Xi attempting to consolidate his power within the party, analysts say. Since taking office in 2012, Xi has initiated an unprecedented anti-graft campaign which has so far netted hundreds of high-ranking party officials and thousands more on lower levels. Some China watchers have criticized the movement as a political purge echoing Mao’s Cultural Revolution (paywall) in the 1960s.

State media has dismissed that idea, but Xi’s strong-arm tactics have fueled infighting within the party, many analysts say.

Ahead of the sixth plenum, Xi may be sending a message to his detractors. The party’s top discipline watchdog published an eight-part TV series of confessions by those corrupt officials, which include ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang and Ling Jihua, the former right-hand man to Xi’s predecessor. At least eight high-ranking officials (link in Chinese) who were arrested for corruption earlier have been sentenced to jail over the past two weeks.

In the meantime, an official publication affiliated to the party’s paramount mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily has declared Xi the Mao-like strongman leader that China desperately needs.

What to expect from it?

The sixth plenum is due to approve two documents on improving party discipline and regulating its more than 88 million members.

But it is being more closely watched as the most important meeting before the party’s National Congress, slated for late next year, during which the majority of the party’s elite seven-member group will be replaced because they’re at retirement age.

That won’t include Xi, who has another five years in office. Now speculation is mounting that Xi wants to extend his term beyond when he is due to step down in 2022, an unprecedented step since paramount leader Deng Xiaoping retired in the 1980s. Unlike his predecessors, Xi has yet to promote a possible replacement, who is usually someone in his forties traditionally appointed to a key government post like minister or vice ministers.

If Xi positions himself to stay at the helm for 15 years or more, that could trigger a new round of resistance from his party rivals, starting this week at the Beijing meeting.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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