first in our two-part forecast looking at the 6th Plenum and its precedents

the CCP successfully rewrote its totemic narrative in 1945 and 1981; a third attempt is planned for November 2021

The fast approaching 6th Plenum is being tipped to rank with two earlier ‘super plenums’, each marking a radical retelling of the Party narrative. Official media is telegraphing that a change is coming and that the incumbent and his doctrine (known as his ‘line’) have what it takes to ‘rejuvenate the Chinese nation’. Indeed, to be invested as Party general secretary for life.

The 6th Plenum of the 19th CC (Central Committee) will convene 8–11 Nov 2021. The game-changing earlier super plenums were the 7th Plenum of the 6th CC in 1945, and the 6th Plenum of the 11th CC in 1981. Mao Zedong Thought was ordained as Party orthodoxy in the former; Deng Xiaoping’s folksier-sounding formulae for the decades of reform, in the latter (‘let some people get rich first’, ‘crossing the river’, ‘hide and bide’).

Yet changing times pay little regard to official doctrines, and what worked for Mao or Deng cannot be guaranteed to work for Xi.

turning over the narrative

The Party-state engages in constant self-affirmation, the main plank being its powerful, if partisan, version of history. National leaders invoke famous mandates—in Xi’s case, ‘rejuvenating the Chinese nation’—assuring them of a lasting legacy.

There is a sharp difference between being enshrined in canonical texts laying down the history of the Party and mention in everyday documents—even the PRC or Party constitutions. Canonical history is formidable in confirming political authority, a place on China’s Mount Rushmore. Deng Xiaoping, for example, and his imperative of economic development are burnished in formal accounts of the decisions of the 1980s. His successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, held to Deng’s 1978 line switch to economic development. But their faces would not be carved in granite.

A rewrite of the reform era’s historical narrative by Xi’s consiglieri would, in principle, break with the Deng era narrative. But would it switch back to class struggle, Mao’s core task? Many fear so.

a tapestry of Party lines

Selected for five-year terms, the 200-odd CC delegates convene en masse only at plenary (full) sessions, limited conventionally to seven per term, at least once per year. The 6th and 7th plenums are held respectively a year before, and on the eve of a new Party Congress and CC. In formal terms their tasks are ‘housekeeping’: shaping recruitment and promotion (‘Party building’) and mission statements (‘ideology’).

By the opening of the 7th Plenum in May 1944, Mao had won the Party leadership, removing any rivals during his Yan’an Rectification 1942–45. Convened, the session sat for a mind-boggling 11 months, cementing Mao’s supremacy and tearing up the lines of his rivals. Drafted by henchmen supervised by Ren Bishi 任弼时, the Resolution of Several Historical Issues was passed, a shattering switch of narrative crediting Mao with near-miraculous powers. Earlier Party critics of Mao were demonised. Policy failures, fastidiously labelled ‘errors’, functioned like charges of heresy in the medieval papacy.

Party members must henceforth display unswerving loyalty to Mao’s line at the expense of his rivals. By the 7th National Party Congress, following the 7th Plenum in 1945, Mao was beyond challenge as supreme leader.

The 6th Plenum of the 11th CC (1981) was to become equally iconic for the post-Mao line. An end was called to the calamitous Cultural Revolution after his death in 1976. A new power structure emerged with the return of senior cadres, not least Deng Xiaoping, rusticated during the ‘cultural foment’. It took until 1978 for the Deng-led reform faction to solemnise their ascent to power at the 3rd Plenum of the 11th CC.

Yet far from ending, line debates intensified. Absolute negation of Mao and his era was imperative for some; others deemed reform and opening too deviant. A modus vivendi was struck in Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the PRC’s Founding. Massively debated and modified, it was passed by the 6th Plenum in 1981. Mao’s contributions, it insisted, outweighed his wrongdoings; CCP leadership ‘with Deng as the core’ was affirmed. Party and state priorities would shift to the economy, radically stretching but retaining Mao’s flagship ‘socialist modernisation’. This became the CCP’s post-Deng line. Deng was now central to both legitimacy claims and policy.

joining the pantheon

Building blocks—decisions, principles, ideology—gathered during the process of developing a new authority are often opportunistic, discordant and risky. A super plenum hence aims to produce a credible, coherent and robust Party line to drive a new orthodoxy.

But for a game changing super plenum there are other must-haves, as the earlier precedents reveal

  • a major reversal or bifurcation of the line, e.g. Mao ending the Soviet era and Deng presenting ‘some can get rich first’ as the primary stage of socialism and thus within the Marxist narrative
  • powerful enablers in the style of Ren Bishi, Hu Qiaomu 胡乔木 and Hu Sheng 胡绳 (see profiles below)
  • an ideological advance on the scale of a credibly innovative constitution
  • a formula to play to the international gallery and head off serious loss of soft-power post COVID (‘Chinalessness’ among advanced economies)
  • convergence of Party goals with popular interests

Can Xi’s brain trust configure a line sufficiently robust for coming decades? Follow Part II next week.


Ren Bishi 任弼时 | Politburo secretary general

Military and political leader in the early CCP, Ren oversaw the drafting of the first historical resolution. As Mao’s closest ally, he rode shotgun over the 1942–45 Yan’an Rectification, the first taste of Maoist orthodoxy and and the claim of his near infallibility. Foundation director of the CCP General Office, Ren oversaw Party affairs and functions. Assisting Mao with elimination of inner Party opposition, he helped cement this in the first historical resolution. He was one of five Politburo ‘secretaries’ in 1945 (equivalent to the present Standing Committee). (d.1950)

Hu Qiaomu 胡乔木 | CCP Central Party History Research Office director

Official theorist for both Mao and Deng, Hu wove Marxist-Leninist backstories for varying Party lines, winning the sobriquet ‘pen of the Party’. He helped draft both the 1952 and 1981 historical resolutions. During the Yan’an Rectification, as Mao’s secretary, his compiled the documents that provided chapter and verse of Mao’s rivals’ missteps. This was required reading for the Party elite. He then drafted the first historical resolution under Ren Bishi’s oversight. Hu burnished Mao’s theories, authoring influential doctrinal texts—not least the PRC’s first constitution in 1952—until the Cultural Revolution when he fell victim to Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. On Mao’s death, Hu held a series of senior posts in the ideological establishment, reinventing his assumptions to help draft the second historical resolution in 1981. His rigid Marxism-Leninism fell out of favour in the Deng era. (d.1992)

Hu Sheng 胡绳 | CCP Central Party History Research Office director

Vice director of the Party’s History Research Office under Hu Qiaomu, on Mao’s death Hu Sheng went on to oversee Party doctrinal texts and formally ratified Party history. He drafted the second historical resolution in 1981 and the second PRC constitution in 1982. Incorporating ‘reform and opening’, this has served warts and all to the present. With Hu Qiaomu’s eclipse, Hu Sheng replaced him in officiating over the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences History Research Office. Hu Sheng can be thought of as channelling Marxism-Leninism to rationalise the market economy and, some would say, neoliberalism. (d.2000)

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