The What, Why, and How About the 6th Plenary of the 19th Central Committee of the CPC

December 31, 2021
About the author:
Xie Maosong
Senior Fellow, Taihe Institute
Director, Research Center for Chinese Civilization and Roads, China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy 
Senior Research Fellow, National Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University


Among all official documents released in China throughout 2021, two specifically stand out: the Communiqué of the Sixth Plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the CPC and the Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century. To understand their significance and the ways in which the two documents will affect China’s future development, TIO conducted an interview with Professor Xie Maosong, Senior Fellow of Taihe Insitute.
TIO: I’d first like to discuss with you, Professor Xie, about the function of the Party Central Committee’s plenary sessions. Specifically, what is the historical significance of the 6th Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee? The Session adopted a key document—the third Resolution. What is the historical function of this Resolution? Why do we need to adopt this Resolution at this moment in time?
“Policy decisions adopted at the sessions are,
therefore, not rhetorical but practical and substantial.
They will be implemented as stated
in the speeches delivered by key officials
or as charted in the communiqué released after the meeting.”
Xie: First, the plenary sessions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) are of great importance to China because the goal of every plenary session has been, and still is, to tackle the most significant issues that the country faces in that particular time period. For example, the economic problems and the so-called sannong wenti 三农问题, which means issues related to agricultural production, the well-being of farmers, and the development of China’s rural area. The focus of this year’s Sixth Plenary Session was on party building.
For the CPC, unity of thoughts matters the most to the process of policymaking and policy implementation. This is a major difference between China and the West. In countries like the United States and other European states, political parties are parties of interests. You have some parties representing the middle-lower classes, some representing the upper class. So, in the West, the emphasis of a political party is on the “part.” In China, however, the CPC, as a governing body, represents the whole. It represents the rights and interests of the entire nation and the whole Chinese population. In other words, for a policy practice to be carried out, there has to be a consensus within the Party, from the top down to the bottom.
In this sense, plenary sessions of the Party Central Committee are work meetings with political functions because they convene all the core and leading members of the Party to work on China’s development planning on the basis of the major issues facing China. The meeting is held after unity of thought is achieved at each level of the party organization.
Policy decisions adopted at the sessions are, therefore, not rhetorical but practical and substantial. They will be implemented as stated in the speeches delivered by key officials or as charted in the communiqué released after the meeting. So, a great amount of work is required in the lead up to the session. There will be a long time for preparation, research, investigation, fieldwork, negotiation, and consultation. Those attending the plenary sessions are not having an on-site debate, where either the winner gets to decide what to do for the following years or everything comes to a stop until the next session if there is an impasse. Each policy initiative is framed after the interests of all stakeholders are considered and without a consensus, the proposed policy will not be put on the table for discussion. This is what is unique about the CPC. It is a party with a high degree of discipline. And this is what essentially sets the CPC apart from western political parties.
Now, in terms of the functions of the Historical Resolution. Thus far, there have been three resolutions in total. The first was adopted in 1945, the second in 1981, and the third at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee.
We should understand the significance of the Historical Resolution. But as it’s only been a month since the adoption of the third Resolution, it is still too early for us to fully understand its long-term historical impact. But we can, however, make some predictions and offer some outlook by examining the historical impact of the previous two documents, particularly the 1945 Resolution.
We know that the first Resolution established the leading position of Mao Zedong within the CPC. It stipulated Mao Zedong Thought as the guiding ideology of the Party. It criticized practices of ultra-leftism, dogmatism, and sectarianism, which almost destroyed the Party, and it identified the correct path to fight revolutionary wars, which was to wage guerrilla warfare, in accordance with the strategy drawn up by Mao Zedong.
In short, the first Resolution reviewed the Party’s historical experience. It illuminated the importance of choosing the right path every time the Party and the country were faced with a fateful decision. The idea of unswervingly following the right path is what unifies all party members. What the right path is or which path to follow is a consensus that needs to be reached throughout the entire Party as it guides the development of the country. Mao Zedong Thought is one example of such paths.
Deng Xiaoping once said in 1981 that Mao Zedong Thought had educated an entire generation of Party members. Even today, Mao Zedong Thought is widely studied among leaders across different sectors.
As to the latest third Resolution, we know that the document affirms a “two establishment” –establishing General Secretary Xi Jinping as China’s core leader of the CPC and establishing the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era.
In my view, the “two establishments” is of the same importance as the establishment of Mao Zedong Thought as the guiding principle of the Party in 1945. During those years, Mao Zedong Thought guided the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the War of Liberation, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Today, Xi Jinping Thought is to guide the CPC to realize the Second Centenary Goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects. It is a goal for which generations of CPC leaders starting from Mao Zedong have been leading the Chinese people to strive. It is a continuous process rather than a personal political innovation. It is a relay race.
This means that the third Resolution differs from the previous two Resolutions in important ways. The former ones pointed out the mistakes made by the Party and illustrated the significance of rectifying them. But after a hundred years, I think it is arguably true that the CPC as a ruling party is relatively successful. This is why I characterize the third Resolution as Jidacheng 集大成, which means “epitome.” Then, what is an “epitome”?
I have studied Chinese civilization and Chinese classics for quite a long time. When I look at the past one hundred years of the CPC, I often understand it within a larger framework of China’s 5000-year civilization.
In the history of China, two individuals are of special importance: Duke of Zhou and Confucius. Duke of Zhou established a whole set of ruling systems by creating rituals and music. In other words, he laid the foundation for the development and thriving of the civilization of the entire Chinese nation. Confucius once said, “The Zhou Dynasty referred to the rituals of the past two dynasties to create its own system of rites. This was why the Zhou rites were so rich and colorful. I follow the Zhou rites.” This means that the Zhou Dynasty adopted the exceptional elements of the of rites of the Xia and Shang Dynasties, and it was this integration of rites that made the Zhou rites better and more diversified. Confucius was not calling on restoring the old rituals, but he was appealing to the people to go with the time and follow the “right” tide.
There is also another saying in the Analects of Confucius. Zizhang, a student of Confucius, asked: “Can we know what will happen after ten generations?” In the past, one generation was equal to thirty years. He was asking whether one could know the social systems and moral norms 300 years later. Confucius replied that we knew how much had been altered from Xia to Shang, and how much had been changed from Shang to Zhou. The dynasty to come would inherit something from Zhou, and the pattern would go on and on. So, things could be predicted.
So, there is a norm in the Chinese traditional culture. Take the Party disciplines as an example. All CPC members must follow the code of conduct as stipulated in the Party disciplinary documents. They have to be strict with themselves, which means that self-cultivation and self-governance is an ongoing process as long as this person is a Party member. This is a contemporary manifestation of the Confucian tradition of xiuqi zhiping修齐治平: only by cultivating oneself, regulating one’s family, and governing the country well can we live in the world of peace and prosperity. The tradition prevails from the old times to now. The characteristic of Jidacheng is thus what makes Duke of Zhou and Confucius significant in Chinese traditional history: they were willing to learn from past experiences and apply the core ideas to the current times to make improvements. Xi Jinping Thought of socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era, to me, is something along the same line. It is an integration of key thoughts of the previous leaderships, including Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Representatives, and the Scientific Outlook on Development.
The new Resolution stresses four distinctive periods in the Party’s 100-year history. The first is the revolutionary period while the second is the period of socialist construction. Mao Zedong Thought was the guiding thought of the Party during these two periods. The third is the new period of reform and opening up, with Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Representatives, and the Scientific Outlook on Development as guiding principles. And the fourth is the new era that we are marching into right now. China’s development in this era will then proceed with Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era as the guiding thought. So, there is a sense of coherence and continuity along China’s developmental path. However, the third Resolution differs from the former two in that the former two went at length reviewing and criticizing the major mistakes that the Party had made in the past.
TIO: I think that the significance of the former two Resolutions lies in the fact that they were both about establishing the legitimacy of CPC as China’s ruling party because back then, the Party was very young. It had just transformed itself from a revolutionary party to a governing party. This means that when governing a country, the Party had to “cross the river by feeling the stones underneath the water” and sometimes, mistakes were inevitable. So, the former two Resolutions were largely about reviewing the process of searching for the right path of development. Now, as the Party celebrated its centenary this year, we have this third Resolution. To me, this Resolution is not only about reviewing what we have achieved in the past, but also, more importantly, about having to think broader and look forward.
Xie: Right. To be able to talk about experience, you have to first have a fairly long period of history. So, time is a necessity; the process is a necessity. Tests and reviews are both very important. This is why Chinese people believe that mistakes are valuable. It is important to look at things dialectically.
Another point you mentioned is legitimacy. Every Resolution has this political function of reinforcing the political legitimacy of the Party. But legitimacy in China differs from that in the West. In the West, never has a party issued something like a historical resolution. To them, religion may be more important than history. So, they don’t understand why resolutions are so important to China. 
China has formed a civilization that is different from other ancient civilizations. Western civilizations, or the Indian civilization, were religion-oriented, and separation of church and state has only been a relevant idea in modern history. So, in China, the legitimacy of politics can be translated into the legitimacy of history. This is because the political legitimacy of a governing body has to be tested out with historical results. Whether one is legitimate or credible is not to be judged by what it says or promises but by actual results or outcomes of its policy practices. That is to say, history points to the future. History is an ongoing process, where past achievements function as a constraint that incentivizes future development.
From this perspective, we can see that the guiding thought of Chinese leaders is not something that they created in isolation, nor a personality cult. Rather, it is a result of all the hard work and experience of the entire CPC members for many years. So, the idea of collective leadership is very important for China. We must also be aware that believing in the leaders does not mean distrusting the system. In China, the system and the person operating the system are both important, and neither could be overlooked because we believe that people can unite people.
For example, when we talk about the prosperous period of Zhen Guan in Tang Dynasty, we may think of such figures as Emperor Taizong, Chancellor Fang Xuanling, and Chancellor Wei Zheng. We know that prosperity of this period was a result of the collective leadership of these figures. So, people play a key role in governance. Recognizing and acknowledging the talented and the capable ones and letting them thrive in their positions is very important as well. An example is how Emperor Liu Bang put Xiao He as his chancellor. My point is that we should believe the importance of people (the leaders) in politics; we should believe that people can unite and motivate people. This is the gist of Chinese politics. It is not unique to China’s modern history but is something that has been there from old times up until now. This is very important.
TIO: Yes, the system is very important, but the people who carry out the policies within the system is of equal importance. When a system is designed, it may serve the society at that time period. But society changes. It is not static. So, there has to be reform so that the policies are in pace with the times. I think in China, we are constantly modifying our policies and even our system. We have generations of leaderships, but the leaderships shall not override the Party, and the Party is to serve the people. So, China has greater capacity to carry out continuous reform compared with our Western counterparts, particularly as political polarization is posing serious challenges to state governance in Western countries right now.
Xie: Right. You have made a very important point. In the U.S., it is the polarization of two parties, and in Europe, it is small parties blackmailing major parties. Both have led to political and social instability in recent years. And this is also why in China, the Party stresses that factionalism must not be allowed and why party building is of great importance.
“We must also be aware that
believing in the leaders does not mean distrusting the system.
In China, the system and the person operating the system are
both important, and neither could be overlooked...”
TIO: Thank you, Professor Xie. What I want to discuss next is about the transformation of the manufacturing sector. China’s economic transition has important implications for the international community. China is a huge market. Any policy modification here will be a focus of attention for decision-makers of various fields at the regional and global stage. We know that the rapid economic development over the past decades in China has been driven by our manufacturing sector. But in recent years, science and technological innovation, digitalization, and sustainable development has gradually become key areas of development within the context of economic transition. How may this affect the traditional manufacturing industry? How may this change impact the world?
Xie: Let’s first look at the major tasks that the government has been mandated ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. What was the first task? It was to transform China from an agricultural country into an industrial one. During the Opium War, China was still a traditional agricultural society. That was why we were repeatedly bullied by the Imperial Powers. This was why China prioritized its agenda of developing the iron and steel industry during the 1950s.
Within the 30 years that followed, China built an industrial system. Meanwhile, China also built a huge domestic market, which is a point often overlooked when people talk about China’s economic development. While the start of the reform and opening up was a watershed moment, the thirty-year before that should not be disregarded. Without the complete industrial system or the huge domestic market, it was unrealistic for China to become the world’s largest factory after the reform and opening up. So, industrial development was a prerequisite for us to attract foreign capital and investment. This is again a continuous process. During the first thirty years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, we laid the foundation for its further transformation from an agricultural country into an industrial one; after implementing the policy of reform and opening up, China developed into a big manufacturing country.
Within a few decades, China completed something that took the West several hundred years to achieve. Yet, modernization has come with two upshots. First, it brought irreversible destruction to ecology. Second, under globalization, it bound developing countries and developed economies in a dependent relationship, which is highly unequal.
In fact, globalization is, in essence, transnational capitalism. Indeed, international enterprises benefited from the world order. But inside each country, like the United States, people from the middle and lower classes didn’t really enjoy the benefits of globalization. So, modernization is a double-edged sword. It produces two problems.
So now, in China, we have now turned our attention to high-quality development. We aim to achieve modernization with socialist methods, in a view to overcome the problems that I just mentioned. How to achieve high-quality development? The key is not effectiveness, but efficiency. Efficiency is achieved with science and technological innovation. And China’s advancement in science and technology poses a serious challenge to the U.S. because the dollar hegemony and the American military hegemony are undergirded by the US technology. China used to be at a middle-and-lower position of the global value chain. But now we want to go upward. This means that China is likely to disrupt the dependent relationship in the division of labor between the developed and developing economies under globalization.
A few days ago, the U.S. issued another list of sanctions against Chinese corporations. It appears that the U.S. is now determined to suppress China, regardless of what the company will use the technology for. So, developing our technological capability is critical for China.
“ China, we have now turned our attention
to high-quality development.
We aim to achieve modernization
with socialist methods...”
Years before, I put forward this concept of “digital civilization.” This is to say that China was first a traditional agricultural civilization, then an industrial civilization, but in the future, we will be a digital civilization.
The trade war, which started in 2018, witnessed how the U.S. suppressed Huawei and other Chinese tech companies. It reflects that China has made huge progress in developing digital technology and promoting an era of digital civilization. The 5G technology is a case in point. Why does China attach so much importance to economic digitalization now? Why is development of industrial software essential? Because while we already have industrial civilization, with the support of digital technology, economy in China will develop with higher speed and higher efficiency. This is the basic idea of the so-called Industry 4.0.
So, I think the Sino-US competition is essentially a competition in science and technology. The trade war that the U.S. launched against China is essentially a tech war. For China to win this war, innovation and innovation-related talents are key. How to stimulate such innovation? How to cultivate more talents? How to fuel the momentum of innovative entities? The key is to make good use of China’s new national system.
Then what is the new national system? When people refer to the new system, many view it as the mobilization and integration of resources with China’s market economy. I once mentioned in one of my articles a few years ago that the key point of the new system is not only the combination of resources with market economy, but also the integration of resources with globalization and with digital technology. But this is not to hollow out the manufacturing sector. In recent years, the U.S. has been trying to suppress and contain China. The objective is to hurt China by moving all the manufacture factories out of China. Originally, it wanted to bring the factories back to the U.S. but failed. So, it turned to smaller countries in the South and Southeast Asian countries.
But there are two problems with these Southeast Asian countries. First, they are too small to receive such a huge sector of the supply chain. Second, the pandemic has affected these countries so badly that there’s no way for them to start all the work. So, the supply chain cannot be moved completely out of China, and manufacturing in China won’t be hollowed out. In short, while we have to develop science and technology for greater efficiency, at the same time, we will continue improving our manufacturing industry to develop and further improve the whole industrial chain.
TIO: And this is the so-called “dual-circulation” economy.
Xie: Right, the dual-circulation plan. This plan releases two key messages to the world. First, China remains open to the outside world. But facing with the suppression by the U.S., we will have to be fully prepared to deal with unwanted situations.
So, on the one hand, we need to have a high-quality development domestically and should upgrade our consumption. On the other hand, we should continue the battle against poverty. In the future, the domestic rural area will be a new consumption market. In the past, our economic growth was by and large driven by exports, which means that changes in the US market would have a huge impact on the Chinese economy. Now, we aim to gradually reduce our dependency on exportation. This means that though we are not closing our doors to the outside world, we have to get ready for any crisis.
Now, in terms of our exportation policy, China just launched the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Circle plan. This is the fourth economic growth zone in China, the first three being the Yangtse River Delta Economic Circle, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Metropolitan Region. Different from the foregoing three development zones, the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Circle is located in the hinterland. And it aims to develop a dual-economic circle with Chengdu and Chongqing at the center. Specifically, the plan is to make this economic circle as an economic highland centered around Chengdu and Chongqing to incorporate neighboring countries such as Southeast Asian countries, South Asian countries, as well as countries in Central Asia via Afghanistan and Iran, and European countries via the China-Europe freight trains. While this is a natural outcome of China’s economic growth, to some extent, it is also an economic pattern that has been formed under the American pressure. So, the dual-circulation strategy is, in essence, an interaction of domestic and international economic entities.
TIO: If we zoom in and focus on the specific areas of change, how will the manufacturing industry transform in the future years? Further automation of facilities?
Xie: Right. Greenization and digitalization of manufacturing is, to my understanding, one method of manufacturing upgrading, and for which high-tech plays a major role.
TIO: Thank you, Professor. From your interpretation, I learned that continuity and coherence are fundamental to all policymaking. China has by now issued 14 five-year plans (FYP). Each FYP is to adjust, reform, and innovate on the basis of the previous one.
Xie: Absolutely right. And this is the advantage of socialism. Many people don’t understand what Socialism with Chinese Characteristics means. Let me explain it by using the example of building infrastructure. Almost all political leaders know that infrastructure is important. Obama, Trump, and Biden, one after another, prioritize the construction of American infrastructure in their agenda. The infrastructure of the United States was built during 1920s to 1930s, well before the Second World War. China has an advanced high-speed rail system. The U.S., the number one economy in the world, doesn’t have one. Why? Does Washington not want one? Yes, it does want one. But we all know that the construction of such a railway system will affect the interest groups representing the oil and automobile industries. So, these groups will prevent related acts or bills in the Congress from passing. Therefore, socialism in China stresses the national goal, which is the well-being of the entire people, rather than that of the big capitals, and this is the fundamental difference between China and other countries.
So, China is a socialist rather than capitalist country, which means that our country will not be controlled by capitalism. We know that capital spurs creativity. It brings vigor and vitality to the market. But we also have to recognize that this vitality comes with serious side-effects. So, in China, we make good use of the vitality brought about by capitalism, but at the same time, we also make sure not to be controlled by capitalism. And this is Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. It is highly principled, which means that the Party must always prioritize the well-being of the entire Chinese population. Meanwhile, it is also flexible, which means that we do not reject capital and we do not reject advanced technologies, but the principle is that we use it without being used by it. This is the key point. So, China will not allow the existence of giant tech monopolies. That’s why we want to ensure compliance by all the big capitals like Alibaba, Ant Financial, and Didi. One important manifestation of socialism in China is such macro regulation and control as the five-year plans. Just as what we have said earlier, before carrying out certain policies, we need to test them in pilot cities. We make constant adjustments to adapt to new situations. And this is what is unique about China.
This article is from the December issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the December issue, please click here:
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