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Time to shuffle the deck: season of political personnel changes in China’s Communist Party goes up a gear

The opening in late October of the Chinese Communist Party’s key sixth plenum – or assembly meeting of all members – is the latest session of the Central Committee’s current tenure and signifies the start of Beijing’s five-yearly political reshuffle season, lasting until the 18th party congress late next year.

A series of personnel changes at the provincial level are already underway in the lead up to a major reshuffle at the apex of the party at the next party congress, which will see the replacement of five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee.

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At least once a year, about 370 members and alternates of the Central Committee meet in the military-run Jinxi Hotel, in Beijing – arguably the safest and most exclusive hotel in China – to discuss personnel appointments, state policies and party affairs.

Here we take a closer look at the background to these assembly meetings.

Key Communist Party plenum set for late October

What are these plenary sessions?

The plenums refer to the meetings attended by members of the CPC’s Central Committee, which exercises the power of the National Congress of the CPC. These sessions are held at least once a year until the convening of the next party congress. Conventionally, seven plenary sessions are held during the five-year tenure of each Central Committee.

Who are the participants?

Since they are plenary sessions, all members of the CPC’s Central Committee – including the 200-or-so full members and the several dozen alternative members – are supposed to be present.

As a result of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption crackdown, nine full members of the CPC’s Central Committee and 13 alternative members have been netted since the 18th party congress – exceeding the total number of downfalls of all the full and alternative members in the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th Central Committees of the CPC.

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What are the general functions of each plenary session?

First Plenum

Held right after the end of the five-yearly full national congress, the newly elected Central Committee will in turn generate the 25-strong Politburo and the innermost Politburo Standing Committee members, which have seven people in the current session, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Second Plenum

Proposes the list of candidates for the leadership personnel of the government and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body for the National People’s Congress to ratify. Usually happens before the “two sessions” – the joint plenary meetings of the NPC and CPPCC.

Third Plenum

It was at the third plenum in 1978 that former leader Deng Xiaoping announced the Reform and Opening Up policy, which spearheaded major market-oriented reforms and opened China’s door to the outside world. Thereafter, subsequent party leaders’ first third plenum are usually viewed as the most important plenum where they would table their major political or economic reforms agenda.

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Fourth Plenum

This discusses how to improve the CPC’s governing capacity. The last fourth plenum, held in October 2014, focused on the rule of law.

Fifth Plenum

Usually dedicated to discussions about the government’s five-year plans, to be finally approved at the next year’s national legislature plenary.

Sixth Plenum

Discusses improvements in the general morality of society and the CPC, in addition to cultural reforms. This is the most important plenary session in the run-up to the massive leadership reshuffle during the party congress in the autumn of the following year.

Seventh Plenum

Usually convenes shortly before the party’s national congress and discusses the draft Politburo’s work report to be presented at the congress.