What to expect at the Chinese Communist Party’s most important meeting of the year

As China grapples with a property crisis, high youth unemployment, tumbling business and consumer confidence, and an ocean of local government debt, one might expect the government to put everything it has into plans to pull the country out of the economic doldrums. But a meeting of senior Chinese leaders this month is shaping up to offer a very different set of reforms.

Instead of focusing on China’s current problems, the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee—so-called because it is the third session of the committee’s five-year term—will prepare China for a confrontation with the United States by building industries powered by massive investments in cutting-edge technologies. This program is aimed at reinforcing the party’s hold on Chinese society and paying obeisance to paramount leader Xi Jinping, whose policy mistakes—ranging from zero-COVID-19 lockdowns to a crackdown on major online companies—have produced economic malaise. It will also underline China’s shift away from its longtime economic strategy of growth for growth’s sake.

Among the policies expected to be announced at the July 15-18 plenum (which was inexplicably delayed from late 2023) will be reforms restructuring tax and fiscal policies, as well as greater coordination of regional economic development. Both are policies that will reinforce the role of the central government in guiding development. There will probably also be declarations of support for China’s beleaguered private sector, which accounts for more than 60 percent of gross domestic product and over 80 percent of urban employment. But Xi and his subordinates have emphasized that the policy pendulum is swinging decidedly toward statist solutions.

Recent CCP speeches and articles have featured a word salad of Marxist-Leninist jargon justifying new statist policies and endlessly praising Xi.

This strategy will offer little respite to a population struggling to make ends meet and businesses that have lost the will, or means, to invest. Beijing’s drive for what it calls a “high-level socialist market economy” based on “new quality productive forces” will be powered by Xi’s willingness to see the Chinese people—especially its young people—“eat bitterness” in pursuit of national ideals. Government resources are being directed to research and development and industrial subsidies, not social programs.

It should come as no surprise that as the plenum approaches, the Chinese media has featured renewed calls for “common prosperity,” a Mao Zedong-era egalitarian slogan that Xi returned to prominence during the 2021-2022 crackdown on online conglomerates. While that campaign was subsequently de-emphasized, the party-run People’s Daily on June 24 published a full-page article “solidly promoting common prosperity in high-quality development” (originally reported by the Sinocism blog) and a contribution from the secretary general of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences advocating for China to “resolutely abandon the erroneous tendency of putting capital first, material first, [and] money first.”

All of this is a far cry from the late leader Deng Xiaoping’s call nearly five decades ago to “let some people get rich first.” It is also a clear shift from the landmark directives of previous Third Plenums that heralded market-oriented economic policies. Deng’s turn away from Maoist “class struggle” and toward modernization came at the 1978 Third Plenum. His endorsement of China’s full-fledged opening to the global economy was the theme of the 1993 meeting. And even Xi’s first Third Plenum in 2013 called for more than three hundred market-related reforms (most of which were never implemented).

Since then, however, the ideological tide has turned. The 2018 plenum rubber-stamped the elimination of term limits for CCP general secretaries, allowing Xi to hold power indefinitely and heralding a marked change in policy direction. Recent CCP speeches and articles have featured a word salad of Marxist-Leninist jargon justifying new statist policies and endlessly praising Xi, but the propaganda boils down to greater government control over the economy.

Beijing justifies this policy shift as necessary because of national security concerns, or what the State Council, in announcing the plenum, called “the increasingly fierce international competition” with the United States and its allies as they tighten controls on the flow of technology and capital to China. As a result, Beijing is prioritizing “high-level technological self-reliance,” by investing tens of billions of dollars in research into advanced semiconductors, quantum computing, new types of renewable energy, and many other areas. This high-octane industrial policy has the government supporting state-owned enterprises and picking winners among private companies to achieve rapid growth in “a single-minded pursuit of technological progress,” as Arthur Kroeber wrote in a recent Brookings Institution paper.

Chinese officials certainly pay lip service to addressing the current economic difficulties, and the plenum likely will trumpet its intention to deal with the property crisis and depressed business confidence. But while Beijing has spoken for months about a “new model” of real estate and the need to expand domestic demand, there are few signs of major measures to pursue these goals. Instead, the plenum will push the reform of tax and fiscal policies. This will be aimed at channeling more money to heavily indebted provinces, cities, and counties, whose main source of cash—land sales—has dried up amid the property slump. With the economy struggling and tax revenue falling, Beijing will be hard-pressed to make up the difference, even with more central government resources slated to be shared with local governments. In the end, a newly empowered bureaucracy could end up squeezing the citizenry—especially if, as Xi has envisioned, local authorities are to assume some of the burden of supporting new technologies and industries.

The plenum is also expected to announce measures to reduce restrictions on Chinese citizens’ movement from the countryside to cities, and thus ostensibly offer new opportunities to millions who have not benefited from the country’s growth. But Beijing does not appear to have policies to generate jobs for them. Nor is it taking adequate steps—either social programs or fiscal stimulus to lift consumption—that would assist all those who are feeling the pinch of youth unemployment, lower income, sinking housing prices, corporate downsizing, and a struggling stock market. A highly touted effort to subsidize purchases of new cars and appliances has fallen flat.

China has clearly decided to direct all available resources to next-generation technologies while neglecting to support the vast majority of the population who scrape by outside the tech sector. That suggests Xi will end up with shiny new industries built on a weak economic foundation.

Jeremy Mark is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. He previously worked for the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Wall Street Journal. Follow him on X: @JedMark888.

Further reading

Image: Seven members of China’s Communist Party leadership including President Xi Jinping are selected after Communist Party congress at Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on October 23, 2022. 69-year-old Xi Jinping did not follow custom of retirement age and entered an unusual third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Koki Kataoka/The Yomiuri Shimbun via Reuters Connect.