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UPDATED: April 20, 2015 NO. 17 APRIL 23, 2015
Note on the 'Four Comprehensives'
By Martin Lees

The concept of "Four Comprehensives" can provide a valuable guide for the next critical phase of China's reforms. Since the late leader Deng Xiaoping initiated the policies of reform and opening up in the late 1970s, China has instigated a remarkable transformation of its economy and society, bringing more than 700 million people out of poverty and offering a better life to all Chinese.

With the Chinese economy expanding to more than $17 trillion (in PPP terms), the complexity of its economic, financial and social conditions imply that the next phase of reform will be even more challenging and difficult. It is by no means guaranteed that the remarkable progress achieved over the past 40 years can be consolidated and preserved, for both international and domestic reasons.

Internationally, the Chinese economy is integrated into the global economic and financial systems, both of which have shown deep instability in recent years. In addition, it is clear that the impacts arising from an increasing global population cannot increase indefinitely on our fragile and limited planet. China, as other countries, cannot rely on an neverending flow of natural resources to fuel its growth while depending the present resource-intensive, fossil fuel-based economic model of production and consumption.

Domestically, China has to adapt its economy to face internal challenges, particularly the dangerous environmental, resource and climate issues which have been largely put aside in the race for economic growth to improve the lives of the Chinese people. High levels of air, water and land pollution which affect life expectancy and food security are critical issues that must be dealt with. China is particularly vulnerable to the accelerating impacts of climate change on agriculture, industrial production, water resources, coastal areas and extreme weather.

In short, the economic model and strategy which have guided China's growth in the past must now be adapted to move the Chinese economy toward progress that is both more environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive.

Fortunately, China's leadership has recognized these challenges for many years and is already responding. The goals of the 12th Five-Year Plan will re-orient the Chinese economy on to a less environmentally damaging path, with the leadership of China repeatedly emphasizing its intention to change the trajectory of China's development, moving beyond a narrow focus on GDP growth, and to take account of environmental, health and social consequences and costs.

This will require a deep restructuring of the present economic and energy systems and a greater emphasis on services, social support, education and quality of life. It is within this context that the "Four Comprehensives" are of such profound importance.

A modestly prosperous society

China faces new economic and social challenges as labor costs rise, its population ages, and as resource and environmental pressures increase. In spite of this, China has generated enormous human, scientific, economic and financial potential it can tap into in the future. The capabilities now exist to build a new, low-carbon, resource-efficient and environmentally sustainable economy that could provide long-term prospects and opportunities for the Chinese people. However, as in other countries, this will require strong and sustained commitment at the highest levels to overcome the inevitable resistance to change. The commitment of the leadership to building a moderately prosperous society to the advantage of all Chinese citizens is therefore essential.


As already indicated, the continuing, stable development of China in the long term depends on many factors. The changing situations presented by the 21st century will demand a new phase of thoughtful, sustained reform. It is becoming that the economic models which have driven development and globalization across the world are now failing to meet these new challenges. Based on the Party's principle of seeking truth through facts, learning from experience and careful testing of new policies and on the formulation and implementation of longer-term strategies, China has achieved a rapid transformation of its economy and society in a few decades.

Rule of law

Over the past 30 years, China has established an effective framework of laws in most key areas. The critical issue is that of their implementation and enforcement. China is such a vast, diverse and complex country with so many competing interests and forces across different levels that the enforcement of established laws is intensely difficult in practice. This is especially true in regard to environmental laws which limit pollution, the exploitation of land and resources and the use of energy. This must become a focus for implementation of the "Four Comprehensives," particularly in view of the environmental and health costs of the present path of the economy. In this respect, it is important to recognize that a reduction in health and environmental costs and improvement in energy and resource efficiency are not simply added costs on production or competitiveness. Experience across the world shows that environmental responsibility and resource efficiency, aside from the evident social benefits, bring economic benefits too.

Strengthening Party discipline

The Party must play a central role in guiding the development of China toward the new path of development outlined above and in establishing a framework of common national interests within which the market sector can operate successfully. This implies that Party members at every level must be given the opportunity to learn and understand and therefore to support the strategy established by the leadership to move China on to a new path of development in which economic growth and prosperity, environmental responsibility and social inclusion are properly harmonized. In this way, a modernized Party can play a key role both in safeguarding the achievements of China's remarkable progress to date and in assuring a stable and prosperous future for the Chinese people.

In this perspective, each of the "Four Comprehensives" will address a specific challenge facing China today and, taken together, they will provide a coherent strategy to guide China's development onto a more sustainable, stable and secure path for the future.

The author is former secretary general of the Club of Rome

Copyedited by Kieran Pringle

Comments to zanjifang@bjreview.com

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