By Jessica Tang, an intern in the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program

The 'Four Comprehensives' is the new political theory that Xi Jinping and his government hope will guide China to 'national rejuvenation'. The theory's purpose is twofold: to readjust the Communist Party of China's understanding of economic development, and to strengthen the Party's legitimacy. 

While the 'Four Comprehensives' do not mark any significant departure from what Xi's Government is already doing, we can expect that they will be used as the Party's core justification for an increased focus on social, legal and Party reforms rather than economic growth in the coming years.

The 'Four Comprehensives' were first introduced by Xi in December 2014, but did not come to prominence until the People's Daily published a front page editorial on 24 February 2015, indicating that the theory had received broad Party endorsement. Since February, the concept has taken a central role in the Party's political vernacular, as displayed in this year's 'Two Sessions' – the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – in March. 

The 'Four Comprehensives' are:

  1. Comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society (全面建成小康社会).
  2. Comprehensively deepening reforms (全面深化改革).
  3. Comprehensively implementing the rule of law (全面依法治国).
  4. Comprehensively strictly governing the Party (全面从严治党).

Such theories of Party leaders have historically shaped not only the Party's discourse and trajectory, but have also been the primary drivers of policy for lower echelons of government (think Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin's 'Three Represents' and Hu Jintao's 'Scientific Outlook on Development').  

This singularity of purpose at all levels of government is very powerful – it means that every member of the Party, from the most senior to junior individuals, adopts the same priorities and objectives in their work (putting aside the level of coordination and effectiveness). 

Hu's 'Scientific Development' is the most recent example. This theory aimed to 'correct' the Communist Party's overemphasis on GDP growth in favour of a more 'comprehensive' understanding of development, one that recognised the importance of social welfare and environmental concerns. One particular limb of this theory – 'to make China an innovative country' – prompted the plethora of policies supporting the IT and high-tech manufacturing sectors that emerged in the 2000s, such as the exponential increase in China's gross domestic spending on R&D (this figure a doubled between 2008 and 2012) and the establishment of a national Fifteen-Year Science and Technology Plan.

Hu's 'Scientific Development' continues to shape today's policies – most recently through the 'Made in China 2025' strategy and the 'Internet Plus' plan, both of which aim to use innovation and science to advance the Chinese economy.

Just as Hu's theory acted as a signal for the Party during and beyond his time in leadership, we can anticipate that the 'Four Comprehensives' will serve as the supreme political guide for Xi's era of governance.

The 'Four Comprehensives' seek to clarify and give direction to Xi's ambiguous 'Chinese dream', and also signify a shift in how the Party understands economic development. The People's Daily editorial suggests that while 'building a moderately prosperous society' remains the Party's primary objective, social justice, rule of law and clean governance are indispensable in this pursuit. 

These sentiments echo Hu's 'Scientific Outlook', which also propounded the need for 'coordinated economic, political, cultural and social development'. The distinguishing factors for Xi, however, are that these areas are not mutually exclusive. For that reason, the non-economic 'Comprehensives' cannot be eclipsed in favour of economic growth (as they were under Hu).

This is because the new political theory will also play a role in maintaining the Party's political legitimacy. Historically, the CPC's legitimacy has been attached to its ability to ensure economic growth. However, this legitimacy is now under threat due to China's recent economic slowdown, prompting Xi's Government to introduce new theories and policies to boost its relevance and political standing. 

In June last year, Xi introduced the concept of the 'new normal' to describe China's decelerating economic growth. In doing so, he also sought to replace the previous emphasis on the rate of growth with a focus on the quality of growth. Since early in his term, Xi has also used notions of the 'Chinese Dream' and 'dreams of a strong military' to ensure that the Party's legitimacy can be measured against factors beyond GDP-related achievements. By placing emphasis on social justice, the rule of law and clean governance (all non-economic factors) to economic well-being, the 'Four Comprehensives' is a continuation of this narrative. 

While the 'Four Comprehensives' do build on Hu's 'Scientific Development', the current policy has been designed to address a more urgent challenge. Downward pressures on China's economy have heightened the imperative for the Party to strengthen its legitimacy, and it is likely that Xi's Administration will aim to do so by marking achievements in both economic and non-economic areas under the 'Four Comprehensives'.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.