Rule of law and economic development are set to dominate discussions at the next major meeting of China’s senior leadership—the fourth plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China (CCP) Congress. According to news reports, the October meeting will also address the ongoing corruption investigation into China’s former security chief Zhou Yongkang. But what is the fourth plenum, and how does it fit into China’s larger party-building efforts?
The fourth plenum: a ‘party-building’ session
Fourth plenum sessions are traditionally opportunities for China’s leadership to discuss administrative and ideological strategies and engage in party-building measures. For example, the fourth plenum of the 14th Party Congress, held in September 1994, called for a strong central authority that ensured party policies did “not change with a change in leaders or with a change in their ideas and their focus of attention.”
Each party congress lasts for five years, during which the more than 370 members of the party’s Central Committee meet for seven major sessions:
- The first plenum Held one day after the new party congress, the first plenum is focused on elections and appointments for CCP Politburo members, members of the Secretariat, and China’s Central Military Commission.
- The second plenum In the spring after the first plenum, the second plenum is held before the twin meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The second plenum addresses any high-level issues remaining after the first plenum, including nominating candidates for government positions during years of leadership transition.
- The third plenum In the autumn after the second plenum, CCP leaders hold their third plenum, which typically sets policy for major economic issues. Past meetings have led to the creation of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” movement and the establishment of China’s “socialist market economy.” November 2013’s much-heralded third plenum established a broad agenda of political and economic reform policies.
- The fourth plenum Generally held in the third autumn of a party congress cycle, the fourth plenum often plays a significant role in directing party governance. Historically, fourth plenums serve as implementation sessions for policies decided at the previous year’s third plenum.
- The fifth and sixth plenums Taking place in the fourth and fifth years of the party cycle, the fifth and sixth plenums focus on topics including military governance and CCP “spiritual culture.” The fifth plenum is also when the next set of Five-Year Plans is announced.
- The seventh plenum One week before the start of the next party congress, the CCP holds its seventh—and final—plenum. The meeting serves as an opportunity for the outgoing congress to make final preparations for incoming leaders, report on progress during the previous five years, and issue any amendments it might have to CCP regulations.
Priorities for this year’s fourth plenum
Though economic development will likely play a role in the upcoming fourth plenum, the rule of law—which China’s state media has continuously linked to the ongoing anti-corruption campaign—has emerged as the main item on the agenda.
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping started his anti-corruption drive in November 2012, more than 40 high-level officials have come under investigation. These officials include current and former municipal and provincial party secretaries and vice governors, senior government officials, and executives at state-owned enterprises. But the highest-profile politician to be caught up is China’s former security chief and Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang. In July, the CCP officially accused the former head of security forces of “serious disciplinary violations.” Some analysts have said the public investigation—the first against a former Standing Committee member in more than 30 years—breaks an unofficial taboo against investigating the party’s leaders.
The Zhou case is likely to play into the party’s push to adopt the rule of law as a cornerstone of national governance. Xinhua commentators have said that his case shows that everyone is equal under the law, while other Chinese commentators have suggested that strengthening the rule of law is the best way to provide institutional support to battles against corruption and embezzlement.