Xi Keeps China Investors Guessing With Mystery Politburo Meeting
- Latest readout from top body was shortest of leader’s tenure
- Brevity suggests focus on sensitive or fast-changing issues
Investors looking for signals on China’s plans to tackle Covid-19, the economic slowdown or Russia’s war in Ukraine were left disappointed this week, when the Communist Party’s Politburo released a mysteriously brief statement from its latest meeting.
The 114-character readout from Monday’s meeting was by far the shortest of President Xi Jinping’s decade-long tenure and the first to not disclose specific discussion topics, according to a Bloomberg analysis of some 111 statements. The account — saying only that members “studied recent work” after pausing to remember victims of the March 21 air crash in southern China — compares with an average of about 1,460 characters released after earlier meetings.
The brief dispatch keeps the world even more in the dark than usual about the issues occupying the 25 most powerful people in the world’s most populous country. Besides updates on China’s deadliest aviation disaster in almost 30 years, observers were awaiting details on Beijing’s plans to shore up the economy and financial markets amid Covid lockdowns and Ukraine sanctions.
The Politburo’s intense secrecy — the body meets behind closed doors and publishes no schedules or agendas — means the public may never know why the official account of Monday’s meeting was so short. It’s still possible for state media to release further statements on the body’s activities. Sometimes the party releases transcripts of Xi’s remarks months, or even years, later.
Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University, said the Politburo may seek to avoid public statements to give itself maximum flexibility at a time of uncertainty.
“Readouts from the Politburo usually reflect the settled will of the leadership,” said Mitter, author of “China’s Good War.” Some issues require “fast-changing judgments, and therefore the Politburo does not want to be tied down to a policy that may need to change within days or even hours,” he said.
This latest meeting came at a particularly sensitive time for Xi, as he prepares for a twice-a-decade reshuffle later this year expected to give him a precedent-breaking third term as leader. The party announced the appointment of three regional party chiefs Tuesday, suggesting that personnel changes may have been among the Politburo’s discussion topics this week.
Separately, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday that China’s former justice minister Fu Zhenghua had been expelled from the party as part of a corruption probe.
The shortest statements before covered delicate issues of internal party business. The Politburo issued statements of about 520 characters in December 2018 and November 2017 summarizing efforts to better enforce party discipline, the second- and third-shortest under Xi, respectively.
The fourth-shortest statement — a 532-character summary published in December 2014 — followed one of the most consequential meetings of Xi’s tenure. In it, the Politburo decided to expel and prosecute former security czar Zhou Yongkang for corruption. The retired Politburo Standing Committee member was subsequently imprisoned for life for bribery, abuse of power and theft of state secrets.
Much of the Politburo’s discussions are never made public, a fact hinted at by the Monday’s statement, which noted the body also “studied recent work.” A similar phrase — “other matters were discussed” — showed up in 94 of 112 Politburo releases since November 2012.
Ling Li, a lecturer with the University of Vienna’s East Asian Studies Department, said the latest statement was interesting because people usually “rely on such readouts for their standardized, formulaic style.” “Whatever was discussed, it has to be something that is so sensitive that even the disclosure of its subject matter would disrupt the stability that the country is struggling to maintain at present,” she said.