Data analysis: China’s sixth plenum veers in a new direction

Protocol's text-mining across nearly two decades' worth of plenum documents shows just how different this year's was from its predecessors.

Xi Jinping claps.

This year's outcome was unusual in a number of ways, with a focus on celebrating China's history not seen before.

Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

On Nov. 11, the Communist Party of China concluded this year's plenum, the annual meeting of the leading Central Committee, and released a brief communique detailing what senior leaders discussed and agreed upon. A Protocol data analysis of 27 previous plenum communiques in Chinese from 2002 to 2021, totaling over 27,000 words, shows that this year's outcome was unusual in a number of ways, with a focus on celebrating China's history not seen before.

A newly 'historic' document

There are typically seven plenary sessions in every five-year Party Congress, with each generally serving a unique purpose; sixth plenums are usually dedicated to intra-Party affairs and cultural policies. This year's communique seemingly dispensed with much of that, focusing instead on the Party's achievements and enshrining Xi's place not only in the Party, but in history. Still, promoting Party discipline remains the core focus.

This is clearly reflected in the chart below, which uses the "term frequency — inverse document frequency" statistic to measure which words are most relevant to recent sixth-plenum communiques.

Previous sessions chaired by former President Hu Jintao urged "systemic reform" in the cultural industry (深化文化体制改革) to promote socialist values, while the most recent 18th Party Congress under Xi focused on intra-Party discipline.

By contrast, this year's sixth plenum was uniquely focused on both Xi and the Party's success.

  • "History" (历史) appeared almost 25 times in this communique, more times than all of the last 20 plenum communiques combined.
  • "Leap" (飞跃) also stands out as a unique focus of this year's communique. "Leap" has never before been used in any of the previous 27 plenum communiques across the last four Party Congresses. The use of "leap" implicitly demotes Deng Xiaoping in comparison to Mao Zedong and Xi by crediting Xi with two "leaps" and Mao with one, and as Bill Bishop of Sinocism has noted, overwrites an earlier state media reference crediting Deng with one of those leaps.

This plenum's unusual historical focus is especially clear when we compare its word choices to the three preceding sixth plenums. In the chart below, words above the dotted line are more unique to this year's plenum, while words below the line are more strongly associated with sixth plenums from previous Party Congresses.

  • Words like "era," "history," "revival" or "rejuvenation," "struggle" and "achievement" are more strongly associated with this year's document, evincing a nationalist shift.
  • "China" itself is mentioned more often than usual, and there is more focus on the military and defense.
  • "Reform," once a major stated priority of Xi's administration, is subtly de-emphasized: It is still mentioned multiple times, but carries less proportional weight given the length of this year's communique.

Not everything here breaks the mold. Mentions of "rule by law" increased slightly but were still similar to previous sixth plenums. Though discussion of reform decreased in general, references to "reform and opening" specifically remained consistent.

While the focus on celebrating Party history is unique for a sixth plenum, the primary goal is still ensuring intra-Party discipline, as enshrining Xi's place in history also builds ideological cohesion.

Tech and China's national strength

"Science and technology" (科技) are mentioned three times in this document, a small number that's nonetheless notable because, in the last four Party Congresses, tech was very rarely included in the sixth plenum communique at all. And the unusual focus on tech in last year's fifth plenum preceded China's coming tech crackdown, making any mentions worthy of attention.

All three references to science and technology frame them as sources of national strength. Last year's fifth plenum called for China to develop "technological self-reliance" to support national development, and this year advances in technological self-reliance lead the list of achievements that opens the document, signaling this remains a priority.

Xi's the man

As widely reported, Xi is the star of this document, and his elevation has been a central theme each year of the 19th Party Congress. But just how unusual is Xi's centrality to recent plenum communiques?

This document mentions Xi Jinping 17 times, threefold that any of the previous sixth plenums reviewed by Protocol mentioned any Party chair.

China's next, seventh plenum in 2022 is slated to focus on logistics for the new 20th Party Congress, one expected to cement Xi as chairman for yet another term. Seventh plenums are usually brief and administrative, but if this year is any guide, expect future plenums to be more about Xi, and his place in history, than ever before. That will mark a break from the more predictable, technocratic plenums of years past. Ironically, for a CCP leadership obsessed with history, the Party's past practice is becoming a fuzzier guide to its future.


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