China began returning to work on Wednesday, as the Chinese New Year holiday came to an end. Chinese state media marked the occasion by rolling out a publicity blitz focusing on Xi Jinping’s “strategic blueprint for China”: the “four comprehensives.” In a country where political catchphrases are collected and held up as irrefutable truths, the concept deserves a close look from anyone curious about what direction Xi Jinping will lead the Party and China.
The “four comprehensives” – comprehensively constructing a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepening reform, comprehensively governing the country according to the law, and comprehensively using strict governance of the Party – are not in themselves new concepts. Each has been mentioned before. China-watchers will remember that “comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society” was an emphasis of the 18th Party Congress where Xi officially assumed power; “comprehensively deepening reform” was the title of the 2013 Third Plenum decision; and “comprehensively governing the country according to law” was the subject of the 2014 Fourth Plenum decision. What is new is rolling the “four comprehensives” together into one statement – and holding that statement up as authoritative Party guidance for China’s future development.
People’s Daily trumpeted the “first authoritative definition” of the “four comprehensives” in a lengthy article on released online late Tuesday night (and unabashedly called the article a must-read for anyone interested in understanding how the Party will govern China). People’s Daily notes that the term itself was first used by Xi in a December speech in Jiangsu. The phrase has been cemented as a new political slogan after being repeated in various speeches since.
As the report notes, these four concepts are just the tip of the iceberg – each is interconnected to a series of interlocking goals. The first time Xi mentioned “comprehensively constructing a moderately prosperous society,” for example, he called it a step toward realizing the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. “Comprehensively deepening reform” is seen as crucial to perfecting “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and Party governance; rule by law and strict Party discipline are closely linked to these goals as well.
Another article in People’s Daily (the first of a planned series) notes that the “four comprehensives” are Xi’s “strategic plan for leading the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This pieces frames the four comprehensives as guidance for China as it enters a new phase of development, with new challenges – a wealthier country, but with a low per capita GDP and wealth inequality issues; the environmental and resource issues that come along with a rapid rise in prosperity; a complex security environment at home and abroad; the need to modernize governance. The “four comprehensives” are the goals for a China already well along in its journey toward being fully developed.
The main theme being struck in Chinese media is that these goals represent a new commitment to solving governance issues as opposed to simply pursuing economic development. This point comes through even in a far briefer English-language write-up supplied by Xinhua: “The ‘Four Comprehensives’ come as China pays greater attention to improving governance following the economic miracle.”
According to People’s Daily, the “four comprehensives” represent the “necessary choice” to pay greater attention to the “systemic, holistic, and complementary” relationship between development and growth. Even the most economically-minded of the “four comprehensives” is described as inseparable from governance issues – “fairness and justice” (not just rising incomes) are also parts of a “moderately prosperous society.”
There are undertones of this focus on justice in the concept of “scientific development” championed by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Despite Hu’s love of the term, “development” in the economic sense remained the central goal of his administration. The promises of equitable and sustainable development (especially in the environmental sense) turned out to be mere lip service.
The difference here may be that Xi genuinely sees governance issues (particularly corruption) as a major threat to the continued rule of the Party. That may well provide enough incentive for real changes to the way the Party governs the country – including how it redresses grievances. The question, as I’ve noted before, is how far Xi can go in solving governance and social justice issues without compromising on the central goal of maintaining absolute Party rule in all sectors of society. If the “four comprehensives” are any indication, by the end of Xi’s term, we should finally have an answer.