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Looking Ahead: The Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee
The coming Five-Year Plan will guide China's economic development between 2016 and 2020, and is widely seen as essential in meeting China's goals of becoming a moderately well-off society by 2020
By Jon Taylor | Web Exclusive

On October 26, leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will gather in Beijing for the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee to discuss China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).  

It is likely that the Fifth Plenary Session will focus on national economic development and social progress goals, as well as quantitative targets for political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental issues. The ultimate aim of the Fifth Plenum will be to incorporate these goals into a rough draft of the 13th Five-Year Plan. The Plan will aim to promote China's economic and social transition, as well as achieving the goal of building a moderately well-off society by 2020.  

The Five-Year Plan is a comprehensive document, a blueprint really, that typically runs around 100 pages or more, detailing the CPC's primary policy goals and development initiatives.  While it has specific, quantitative targets, it also includes qualitative aims such as to "build a moderately prosperous society by 2020."  

The 13th Five-Year Plan will be the first of two to be produced under President Xi Jinping's leadership.  At the end of the Fifth Plenum, the CPC Central Committee will issue a concluding statement describing the Central Committee's views on the draft of the 13th Five-Year Plan. 

Preliminary work on the 13th Five-Year Plan 

The work on the 13th Five-Year Plan began long before the official announcement of the Fifth Plenary Session.   The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China's top economic planner, has been working on a rough draft of the 13th Five-Year Plan over the last year or more.  A National Experts Committee (NEC) has already been selected and given the task of officially drafting the 13th Five-Year Plan.   

Once the Fifth Plenum is concluded the work on the Plan is far from over.  Much work remains before final approval of the Five-Year Plan.  Between October and March of 2016, the NEC will finish drafting the 13th Five-Year Plan. The next step will be a discussion of the draft Plan at the annual Central Economic Work Conference in December. Based on precedents set during the development of previous Five-Year Plans, there will be much debate over the Plan's details at both the Fifth Plenum and the Central Economic Work Conference. 

An important feature of the drafting process of the 13th Five-Year Plan will occur between January and February of 2016, when Premier Li Keqiang will collect opinions from all levels of Chinese society. The collection of public commentary is an important and growing aspect of the Party's democratic development by giving the Chinese public the ability to offer their opinion on all aspects of the draft Plan. In anticipation of the public's interest in the Plan, the NDRC has used popular social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat to provide the general public a venue to voice both their concerns and suggestions for the Five-Year Plan. 

After the Chinese public has had a chance to comment, the draft process goes into its final stages. The 13th Five-Year Plan will be submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), who will deliberate the document at both the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Annual Sessions (Lianghui ) in March of 2016. Following submission and deliberation, the full, final version of the 13th Five-Year Plan will be unveiled. 

Shortly after the conclusion of the Lianghui , China's State Council will begin implementing the 13th Five-Year Plan, primarily by using its authority to assign specific and binding targets, goals, and responsibilities to all ministries, departments, regions, and organizations. The State Council will also manage the assessment system that will ensure that the Plan stays on track. 

Why the Fifth Plenary Session? 

Traditionally, the Fifth Plenary Session of the CPC Central Committee is concerned with introducing the next Five-Year Plan, as well as issues related to the internal culture of the Party. CPC rules require that the Party's Central Committee hold a series of plenums during the five-year term of the Central Committee, which generally parallels the Party's Five-Year Plan. Deliberations during the Fifth Plenum set the stage for framing the debate over major aspects of current and future policy. The discussions that take place during the drafting of the Five-Year Plan often signal important changes in China's policy priorities. 

With the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) approaching the end of its operational cycle, the focus is on drafting the 13th Five-Year Plan. The coming Plan will guide China's economic development between 2016 and 2020, and is widely seen as essential in meeting China's goals of becoming a moderately well-off society by 2020, as well as fulfilling President Xi Jinping's call to deepen reform across all sectors and transform China's economic system. 

Sketching out the 13th Five-Year Plan 

So what will be in the 13th Five-Year Plan? That is the ultimate question, one open to great speculation.  

President Xi has made it clear that China's economy is going through "growing pains" as it transitions to a "new normal" of slower economic growth.  Look for the Fifth Plenum to develop and approve a Five-Year Plan that will reinforce President Xi Jinping's call to further reform and open-up China's economy. 

The 13th Five-Year Plan will play an important role in laying out the policy framework for China's new growth targets--particularly new growth drivers. These targets may very well include an upgrading of the nation's industrial base, an emphasis on internet-driven research, development, and innovation, and a greater level of support for the private sector.  

China's "new normal" will likely drive the drafting of the 13th Five-Year Plan. Perhaps a recent report developed by the NPC's Standing Committee provides some answers. By conducting field research on major issues suggested for the drafting of the 13th Five-Year Plan, it suggests that economic growth will likely be a top priority, primarily by creating a target to double GDP by 2020 from 2010 levels, as well as a push to speed up the reform process for the sake of competitive efficiency in State-Owned Enterprises (SOE). 

While economic development and market reforms will be the primary focus of the Fifth Plenum--particularly financial liberalization and the promotion of the internationalization of the Renminbi--other policy areas will likely be given attention. Expect details on plans to expand the social welfare system, liberalize the labor market, extend household registration (hukou ) reform, enhance the rule of law, continue the development of China's democratic mechanisms, expand environmental protection, improve energy efficiency, strengthen regulations on clean governance, and advance stronger sanctions on those who break CPC rules. 

The Fifth Plenum will help to further the major reforms that were announced at both the Third Plenum in 2013 and the Fourth Plenum in 2014 by setting specific and measurable targets. If the 13th Five-Year Plan is to further President Xi's reform agenda, expect a Plan that emphasizes steady, but slower economic growth (likely 6 to 6.5 percent annual GDP growth), a rebalancing of China's economy toward more domestic consumption, stabilization of investments and exports--particularly under "The Belt and Road Initiative" and the "Made in China 2025" Plan--strengthening of the social safety net, liberalizing urbanization through hukou  reform, and boosting SOE competitiveness. 

The author is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and a professor of political science 

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