China recently finished a four-day, closed-door Party plenum meeting. For most readers “plenum” is not a word they encounter very often. What does a plenum meeting and a 30,000-plus Chinese character resolution have to do with the church in China?
Not everyone enjoys trying to read the tea leaves of Chinese politics. The mechanics of how the Party chooses leaders and governs may be unfamiliar to most readers. In this post, we will consider three questions:
- What is this Sixth Plenum?
- What was the outcome of the Sixth Plenum and why is it considered important in China?
- What impact will this have on the Chinese church?
First, what is the Sixth Plenum?
To answer this question, we need to look to the political structure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP elects its leaders every five years (at least since 1977 after the Cultural Revolution) in a Party Congress. The most recent 19th Party Congress met in October 2017 with over 2,300 delegates from among the 89 million Party members. The Party Congress elects Central Committee members and alternate members.
After the Party Congress, the Central Committee will meet in its first plenum meeting (a meeting of all the Central Committee members and alternate members) to elect the Political Bureau (commonly referred to as the Politburo), the Politburo standing committee, and the General Secretary of the Party (currently Xi Jinping). These groups (Central Committee and Politburo) will govern the Party for the following five years until the next Party Congress.
The current structure of the Party is:
|Party Congress delegates
|Central Committee (members and alternate members)
|Politburo Standing Committee
Usually the Central Committee (including members and alternate members) will meet at least once a year in a plenum meeting. There is a normal sequence for what each plenum will address. For example, the third plenum usually addresses economic issues and policies. Normally the sixth plenum addresses ideology, Party building, and personnel issues in preparation for the next Party Congress (20th Party Congress anticipated for the end of 2022).
This sounds like the Sixth Plenum should have been a normal, relatively unexciting procedural meeting setting up for the 20th Party Congress next year. However, this Sixth Plenum meeting had some special content.
Second, what was the outcome of the Sixth Plenum and why is it considered important in China?
The Sixth Plenum meeting occurred November 8–11, 2021 in Beijing. This Plenum issued a resolution on the Party’s history and achievements.1 In the 100 years of history of the CCP, this is only the third historical resolution about the Party’s history. The first one was issued by Mao in 1945 and cemented Mao’s leadership over the Party. The second one was issued in 1981 under Deng Xiaoping and ushered in the major economic reforms that have dominated China’s development for the past 40 years. This Sixth Plenum resolution is significant in China because it summarized and stated the Party’s view of its own and China’s recent history.
Third, what does the Sixth Plenum mean for the church in China?
This is the hardest question to answer. One answer would be “not very much.” Loading the Chinese document into a word processor shows 36,185 Chinese characters. Of these, 44 characters have to do with religion. The English translation of this section is:
In line with the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, we have upheld the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provided active guidance for the adaptation of religions to socialist society.2
Perhaps a more complete answer would be “a continuation of Sinicization.” The Chinese text for this small section uses the words “中国化” which is also often translated as “Sinicization.” A lot has been written about Sinicization in the past few years and is worth reviewing at this juncture.3 The other 36,141 characters in this resolution touch on many aspects of the ideological, social, and political environment that impacts churches and individuals.
If this resolution is any indication, Sinicization will continue to be a guiding principle for managing religions in China including the Chinese church.
For readers interested in this topic, the annual conference on religious work affairs will likely be held in December. We can expect to see additional expansion on this theme at that time.
- The full text of the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century 《中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议》was released on Tuesday, November 16. Read the text in Chinese here and in English here.
- Chinese text is for this section is: 党坚持党的宗教工作基本方针，坚持我国宗教的中国化方向，积极引导宗教与社会主义社会相适应。
- For good references, search “Sinicization” on ChinaSource. Specifically, two recent articles are worth reading: “The Sinicization of Religion” from Chinese Church Voices, December 5, 2017 (accessed November 30, 2021) and “7 Reasons Why Sinicization Is Not Rhetoric This Time” by Jackson Wu in ChinaSource Blog, May 21, 2019, (accessed November 30, 2021).
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