China's Big Development Plan Has Xi's Fingerprints All Over It

  • President enshrines slogans, priorities in policy blueprint
  • Proposals ensure leader's vision endures through decade's end

China's Next Five-Year Plan Sees Growth at 6.5%

China’s new development blueprint was officially handed down Tuesday by the Communist Party’s Central Committee. But the details leave little doubt as to President Xi Jinping’s hand in crafting the document.

QuickTake China’s Pain Points

From promoting the "Chinese dream" to pledging to "purify" the Internet, the sweeping policy document enshrines slogans, catchphrases and priorities the Chinese president has tested out since taking power in November 2012. Their inclusion in the party’s five-year plan -- a Soviet-style holdover of the centrally planned economy -- ensures Xi’s assertive, nationalist vision will shape China’s development through the end of the decade, if not many years beyond.

The president faces the twin challenges of completing China’s transition to a developed, high-income economy while extending the ruling party’s 66-year reign. The 2016-20 plan, which spans all corners of nation-building, represents Xi’s best chance to enact his reforms and establish a legacy before party retirement rules compel him to clear the way for a successor in 2022.

"It bears Xi Jinping’s fingerprints, as does everything else in the Chinese government now. He is the top man, not first among equals, just first. One-man rule is back in China," said Stein Ringen, a professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Oxford. "This is Xi saying, ’I am in charge and I will continue to be in charge.’"

The president took it upon himself to explain the plan to the Central Committee, an honor reserved in years past for the country’s premier. He personally announced the government’s bottom-line goal of 6.5 percent annual economic growth, ushering in the first era of sub-7 percent growth since Deng Xiaoping opened the nation to the outside world in the late 1970s.

Creating Legacy

"Clearly asserting his will in the country’s five-year plan is akin to past leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, and Xi is likely looking to create a legacy for himself that rivals the Communist Party’s more dominant historical figures," said Andrew Wood, Head of Asia Country Risk at BMI Research. There’s little question that the outline very much bears Xi’s signature, he said.

"This has been a key pillar of Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream,’ which sees China not only achieving a moderately prosperous society at home, but also returning to what Xi feels is its rightful place as one of the preeminent stakeholders in the global order," said the Singapore-based Wood.

The New Normal

The president’s euphemism for guiding China’s breakneck economic expansion to a soft landing -- "the new normal" -- provides a guiding theme to the draft. The document endorses a "more balanced, inclusive and sustainable growth model" and promotes services and hi-tech innovation over the traditional growth drivers of exports and manufacturing. To China’s growing middle class -- increasingly concerned about quality-of-life issues such as pollution -- the plan promises a real-time environmental monitoring system, increased low-carbon public transportation and more alternative energy vehicles.

Ideological Control

The document embraces Xi’s broad expansion of efforts to rein in the Internet and tighten controls over the arts and culture. It seeks "a stronger online battleground for ideology and culture, to promote a positive Internet culture, to purify the cyber environment and to speed up integration of the traditional and new media." Whereas the previous plan stopped at "promoting cultural prosperity and state soft power," the current draft seeks "to use the Chinese dream and socialist core values to solidify consensus."

china military
Chinese soldiers ride on armoured missile carriers during a military parade in Beijing on Sep. 3.
Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

New World Order

The blueprint conveys China’s aspirations for a greater say in global affairs, demonstrated this year by the founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The country must "actively participate in making international rules" to preserve an economic balance and ensure financial security, the plan says. Policymakers are urged to reach into "new areas" such as Internet governance and exploration of space, the deep sea and polar regions. The plan calls for "expanding development space," citing Xi’s "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure and trade initiative, as a guiding program.

Modernizing the Military

The party also committed to "basically complete" by 2020 Xi’s plans to overhaul the world’s largest military. The reforms, which include upgrading military hardware, establishing a joint command structure and emphasizing the role of naval and air forces, would help China better project force further from its coasts. The plan calls for "major progress" in preparing the People’s Liberation Army for an information-age conflict and getting troops ready to "fight and win modern wars," one of the president’s oft-repeated slogans.

Fighting Corruption

The proposal seeks to institutionalize Xi’s three-year-old fight against corruption, an unprecedented campaign that has ensnared more than 120,000 party officials including some former top generals and a one-time public security chief. The party pledged to never to relent and to build a system in which "no one would dare to be corrupt, could be corrupt or want to be corrupt."

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