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Xi's key to governance: drive reform

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn (China Daily USA)

Updated: 2015-09-23 13:07:34


President Xi Jinping's state visit to Washington comes at a time when most China watchers in the US have become pessimistic about Sino-American relations.

While the optimum strategy for both sides is to focus on issues that unite - economic growth, climate change, green tech, regional wars, terrorism, organized crime, and pandemics - US policymakers should also understand what is really going on in China.

The general perception among China experts in the US is that, in terms of political reform and civil society, China is regressing.

These are multifaceted issues and there is misunderstanding, but this is precisely why anyone concerned with China should be familiar with Xi's "Four Comprehensives," his overarching political theory. Foreigners often dismiss the political aphorisms of China's leaders as simplistic sloganeering, but I know how important they are. I've had private conversations and conducted public interviews (for state broadcaster China Central Television), and here is what I've found.

Xi put forth his Four Comprehensives to explain the four most critical categories for making the Chinese Dream - his grand vision - a reality: Comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively govern the nation according to law, and comprehensively strictly govern the Party.

Each of the Four Comprehensives has its own nature: "Moderately prosperous" is a goal, "deepen reform" is a means, "rule of law" is a principle, and strict discipline of the Party is an action or state of affairs. But each has been a major policy in itself for years. "Moderately prosperous society" since 2002, "reform" since 1978, "rule of law" since at least 1997, and "Party discipline" (in a sense) since the Communist Party of China was founded in 1921.

So what is Xi's purpose in combining the four now?

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

The pragmatic purposes are, one, a candid compilation of experiences and assessment of current conditions and, two, a priority to implement and act to achieve the unifying goal for 2020 - realizing the "moderately prosperous society." As only five years remain, the Four Comprehensives highlight the deep-rooted obstacles that must be overcome, and the need for a clarifying call to action to achieve the Chinese Dream (the first goal).

How does "comprehensively" enrich the longstanding goal of a moderately prosperous society? For example, Xi told the Politburo of the Party's Central Committee that farmers must participate as equals in the process of reform and development so they too can enjoy its fruits.

"Deepen reform" is the driving force of Xi's governance. The message to officials is to focus on action, have a clear plan, and know your numbers.

"Rule of law" is perhaps the most misunderstood. 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.

"Strict Party discipline" stresses Xi's relentless determination to root out corruption and to shrink the wasteful and detested perks of officialdom.

Xi's governance and Four Comprehensives work complementarily and recursively - the Four Comprehensives shape governance, and governance empowers the Four Comprehensives.

For the new era, Xi is challenging China to improve its governance, which must be systemic as well as systematic.

China wants the world to understand Xi's governance. That's good for China, good for the world. US policymakers should take note.

The author is a political and economics commentator.