China's leadership reshuffle 2017
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The plenum will take place in the Jingxi Hotel in downtown Beijing. Photo: Simon Song

What is the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘sixth plenum’ and why does it matter?

Top Communist Party leaders are gathering at a heavily guarded hotel in Beijing for four days, starting on Monday.

The meeting is the “sixth plenum”, the sixth time the roughly 370 full and alternate members of the party’s present Central Committee have met since late 2012.

Over the past three decades, sixth plenums have focused on ideology and “party building”, and this time those attending are expected to discuss stricter internal supervision of the organisation.

While it may not sound as agenda setting as the five-year plan discussions of the fifth plenums, history suggests it would be unwise to underestimate the importance of this meeting.

For example, it was at the sixth plenum of the 11th party congress in 1981 that the party laid down its official verdict on the Cultural Revolution – the decade-long political and social upheaval that devastated China in the 1960s and 1970s.

So why does this year’s plenum matter?

It’s the most important meeting before the party congress late next year

The meeting this week signals the start of Beijing’s five-yearly political reshuffle season, which will last until the next party congress. Five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most powerful body, will be replaced at the 2017 congress if the informal retirement age of 68 still holds.

Together with another six Politburo members due to retire, the full Central Committee members will be in contention for eleven seats on the 25-strong Politburo.

Regional party chiefs and government heads are already being reshuffled to pave way for the major personnel moves to come.

It could offer signals about the upcoming leadership reshuffle

Speculation has been brewing over whether President Xi Jinping will defy the party’s unofficial retirement rules.

For instance, China-watchers are keen to see if Wang Qishan, the party’s top graft-buster and Xi’s right-hand man, will stay on the Politburo Standing Committee for one more term, even though he will be 69 by the time of next year’s party congress.

If the rule was waived for Wang, it would set a precedent and possibly allow Xi to ignore the rule himself and stay on for a third term after the 20th party congress in 2022.

It is expected to further establish Xi’s authority

The plenum is an important chance for Xi to bolster his authority ahead of the party congress next year.

In the lead-up to this week’s meeting, the party touted its political achievements in fighting corruption front, airing an eight-part documentary on the subject on state broadcaster CCTV.

Another official outlet, People’s Tribune, also stressed the need for Xi to be given “core” leadership status. Citing a survey, it claimed the public believed Xi was a strongman leader – like Mao Zedong – who was competent to lead the historic mission of China’s rejuvenation.

Analysts said an official statement issued after the plenum might shed light on whether Xi would be referred to in a new way that could point to higher political stature.

It is expected to focus on the last of Xi’s “Four Comprehensives”

The theme of the sixth plenum is “governing the party in a strict manner”, the last point in Xi’s major political theory for governing China.

The “Four Comprehensives”, put forward in 2014, was heavily promoted by state media ahead of the national parliamentary session in March 2015.

The Four Comprehensives are to comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society; comprehensively deepen reform; comprehensively govern the nation according to law; comprehensively strictly govern the party.

The first three “comprehensives” were discussed at previous plenums. The sixth plenum, with its focus on the last comprehensive, sets the groundwork for the theory to be developed into a guiding party principle and enshrined in its constitution. This was the case with the “Scientific Outlook on Development” of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, and former president Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” theory.