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Overseas views on NPC & CPPCC: Xi's comprehensive governance

Editor: Li Kun 丨CCTV.com

03-10-2016 18:53 BJT

Editor's note: The National People's Congress (NPC), China's top parliamentary body, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top political advisory body, convene its annual sessions, known as the "two sessions"on March 3-15 2016, which marks a pivotal year as the nation continues on to embark with its reforms and opening up policy, shifting towards a "New Normal" for economic growth rates, starting its 13th Five-Year Plan for social and economic development over the next five years and confronting challenges on the foreign policy front. How will the NPC address those concerns? What do foreign experts and Overseas Chinese say? The Panview Column of CNTV has invited some of them to express their views on major issues to be discussed at the ongoing two sessions.

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn

Where is China going? Everyone is wondering. There is now a new way to know. Everyone interested in China should be familiar with President Xi Jinping's "Four Comprehensives", his overarching political theory. While foreigners often dismiss the political aphorisms of China's leaders as simplistic sloganeering, they miss an opportunity to enrich their understanding of the realities of China. Chinese officials certainly take the "Four Comprehensives" seriously. I know. I've had private conversations and conducted public interviews (for "Closer To China" on CCTV NEWS)—and here is what I've found.


First is the obvious effort to promote, at home and abroad, Xi's way or style of governance and his high-level, integrated political thinking. But why governance? Why "Four Comprehensives"? And how do they relate?

Start with Xi's unprecedented book, Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, which presents his political philosophy, symbolizes his rapid emergence as a strong leader, and expresses his way of thinking. Published in nine languages, the 500-page work features Xi's speeches and commentaries on China's society and statecraft. This book is Xi's roadmap for fulfilling "the Chinese Dream" and achieving the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese people". It presents openly to the world his political theories and practices. Never before, since reform began, has a sitting Chinese leader published such a book.

Books normally tell stories from beginning to end. Not this book. This book is a work-in-process, offering Xi's thinking from when he became general secretary of the Party in November 2012 to around mid 2014, well less than the first two years of his expected ten-year term of leadership. And here's what's especially interesting: Since the book was published in October 2014, Xi put forth his "Four Comprehensives", enumerating what he contends are the four most critical categories for making the Chinese Dream, his grand vision, a reality.

Xi's governance book emphasizes improving people's lives, reform, rule of law, and Party building. These then became codified in Xi's Four Comprehensives: Comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society; Comprehensively deepen reform; Comprehensively govern the nation according to law; and Comprehensively strictly govern the Party. In short, the Four Comprehensives express Xi’s approach to governance.

But each of the Four Comprehensives has its own nature, a distinct linguistic character. "Moderately prosperous" is a goal. "Deepen reform" is a means. "Rule of law" is a principle. Strict discipline of the Party is an action or state of affairs. Moreover, each has been a major policy in its own right, suggested and supported by previous leaders for many years: "moderately prosperous society" since 2002 (14 years); "reform" since 1978 (38 years); "rule of law" since at least 1997 (19 years); "discipline of the Party" (in a sense) since the Party was founded in 1921.

So what's Xi's purpose for combining the four now? What's the structural commonality? What's the unifying innovation?

As I see it, the Four Comprehensives emerge as Xi's prevailing political philosophy of governance via two linguistic devices and two pragmatic purposes. The linguistic devices are (i) combining the four policies into a single idea, and (ii) using the same word ‘comprehensive' as a descriptor of each. Combining them makes the point that these four are fundamental, the basic drivers, and that if achieved, all else to realize the Chinese Dream would follow. "Comprehensive" signals two notions: (i) each policy is facing critical challenges in the "new era" of the "new norm", such that each must be expanded beyond its prior formulation, and (ii) Xi is making a very public commitment to each policy, such that there is now no turning back. 

The pragmatic purposes are (i) a candid compilation of experiences and assessment of current conditions and (ii) a priority to implement and act in order to achieve the dominant goal for 2020—realizing the "moderately prosperous society." As only four years remain until 2020, the Four Comprehensives highlight the deep-rooted complexity of what it will take to achieve the Chinese Dream and the need for a clarifying call to action to make it happen.

A senior theorist said that the Four Comprehensives are a "systematic approach to specific actions that directly benefit the people", a "new kind of theory" that demands specific implementation, and like subjects in school, "we will get a grade on each of the four; the people will give us our ‘report card’."  "The Four Comprehensives are a blueprint for urgent action," he said. "They relate to what is really happening now."

How does the adverb "comprehensively" enrich the long-standing goal of a "moderately prosperous society," the first comprehensive? With about 70 million people still living in poverty, China is now committed to ending poverty entirely. The severe imbalances between urban-rural and coastal-inland areas must be reduced substantially. There is no Chinese Dream if farmers and the poor are not included. Speaking to the Politburo, Xi said, "The most arduous task for China to comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society lies in the vast rural areas, especially in those impoverished rural areas."  "Farmers," Xi said, "must participate as equals in the process of reform and development so they too can enjoy its fruits."

As for 300 million migrant workers—second-class citizens in the cities that they themselves built, without access to equal healthcare, education and retirement benefits—Xi stressed that hukou (residency registration) reform should speed up so that migrants "can live in urban areas in equality".

Urban areas also demand comprehensive development. Take the regional plan to integrate Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province—optimizing population growth, traffic management, environmental protection, energy—security and industrial upgrades.

"Deepen reform," the second comprehensive, is the "power" or "engine" of Xi's governance. The 3rd plenary of the 18th CPC Central Committee (November 2013) passed 336 top-level action items: 80 were achieved in 2014 alone. The message to officials is "focus on implementation; have a clear plan; know your numbers"—every administrative region (province, city, county) must have its numbers. I hear also of the "hard bones" of "interest groups" and "taking away their cheese." (Interest groups are defined broadly as whoever protects the status quo—typically some kind of monopoly or quasi-monopoly—and the larger the resources they control, the fiercer they fight to resist reform.)

Although the "rule of law," the third comprehensive, has long been a central objective in name, it has not been enforced in fact. Xi recognizes that without the rule of law in real practice, China will be neither harmonious nor stabile. Of the many legal reforms in the 4th plenary of the Party's 18th Central Committee (October 2014), making the judicial system independent of local government and protected from undue influence was perhaps the most significant.

‘Rule of law’, the third comprehensive, is perhaps the most misunderstood. While foreigners may focus on isolated cases, recent judicial reforms are a milestone: The power to control the court system—from financing the judiciary to selecting judges—is being transferred from the local level to the provincial level. The objective is to prevent local interference in the fair and equitable adjudication of cases and administration of justice. Another advance in civil society, underreported in Western media, is China’s absolute prohibition, backed by senior leaders and finalized recently, of using executed prisoners as a source of organs for medical transplants.

"Strict discipline of the Party," the fourth comprehensive, stresses Xi’s relentless determination to root-out corruption (bagging "tigers" and swatting "flies"), and to quash the wasteful and detested perks of officialdom. Just as a blacksmith needs a hard hammer, an analogy goes, the Party needs strong members. The aim is to create three attitudes towards corruption: "Don't want. Don't do. Don't dare."

Xi's governance and Xi's Four Comprehensives work complementarily and recursively—the Four Comprehensives shaping governance and governance empowering the Four Comprehensives. It is as if Xi is making governance a "Fifth Modernization." (In 1978, when reform began, Deng Xiaoping established the "Four Modernizations"—agriculture, industry, science and technology, national defense—as the core of China’s policy.) Now for the new era, Xi is challenging China to enhance its governance, which must be systemic as well as systematic.

To achieve any of the Four Comprehensives is challenging—to achieve all of them more so. But here we are witnessing the crystallization, augmentation and maturation of Xi's political thinking on governance—and still we may not have its final form.

Future historians may assess Xi Jinping's reforms similar to the way they assess Deng Xiaoping's reforms. No one ever underestimates the axial significance of Deng's changing China's focus from ideological struggle to economic development. Likewise, no one should underestimate the metamorphic complexity of Xi's changing China across a broad spectrum of economic, social and governmental sectors.

Given the breadth of Xi's reform agenda, I cannot help but notice a bias in how Xi's reforms are reported in the international media. Because Xi's reforms do not include Western-style political reforms, they are not considered true "reforms."

There is a priori belief in the superiority of the Western political system of multiparty elections such that any reforms that are not political reforms moving towards the Western model are not "real reforms". The fact that Xi is a transformative, pragmatic reformer like Deng, and not a Western-style political reformer, cannot be easily processed by a Western mindset.

Throughout the world, there is great need today for true understanding of China, as the largest population on earth undergoes the greatest transformation in history. China participates in every matter of world importance—yet misunderstandings about China and its leadership abound. There is now no need to speculate about President Xi. His book—The Governance of China—is how he thinks, candidly and comprehensively. But this is not a story that has reached its end; in fact, it has just begun. There are new chapters to be written, new challenges to meet.


Robert Lawrence Kuhn is a public intellectual, political/economics commentator, and international corporate strategist. He spoke at the launch ceremony of Xi Jinping's book, The Governance of China, and he provided live commentary on CNN for Xi's policy address (in Seattle) during his U.S. state visit in September 2015. Dr. Kuhn is the host of Closer To China with R.L. Kuhn on CCTV NEWS (Adam Zhu, executive producer).

To find more about Robert Lawrence Kuhn at:

To watch programs of Closer To China with R.L. Kuhn at:

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