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China Sets a Strategy You Can Dance To

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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There’s something mystifying about the animated pop video released this week by the Chinese Communist Party to illustrate President Xi Jinping’s “Four Comprehensives” policy a year after its announcement. If you’re expecting the loyalty dance of the Cultural Revolution, or the terrifying elegance of red flags being silently waved, you’re in for a surprise. The new video is cloyingly cute and almost self-consciously trivializing, without a shred of cultural pretension.

To an outsider, the combination of old-fashioned propaganda phrases repeated incessantly to insipid-yet-contemporary music can seem almost incomprehensible. Yet the Chinese Communist Party hasn’t run the world’s most populous nation for some seven decades without learning something about legitimation and public opinion. With some decoding, the video can teach us something about how Xi and his party are trying to maintain legitimacy in an era of declining economic growth and stock market chaos.

QuickTake China's Pain Points

In the video, an anime-styled girl is instructed by a middle-aged man about the “Four Comprehensives.” They do a little dance, backed up by similarly animated young adults wearing the uniforms of different jobs. The production values are deliberately unslick -- think of something made for American kindergartners.

If you can’t name all four comprehensives, don’t feel bad -- neither can the little girl. If you can make it to the end of the video, I promise that you won’t be able to forget them. 

As introduced in February 2015 to encapsulate Xi’s national strategy priorities, they are: comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively govern the nation according to law and comprehensively strictly govern the party.

The phrase “Four Comprehensives” is repeated ad nauseam, the way you’d repeat something you were teaching to a well-meaning child who was slow to catch on. But the key to the video is to explicate the relationship between the four elements of strategy -- and their ultimate goal.

The main point emerges upfront, when the girl asks, “Does it have something to do with the Chinese Dream?” The answer is a resounding yes. The Four Comprehensives lead directly to Xi’s master slogan of the Chinese Dream -- which is, like most national dreams (the American Dream included), a protean, flexible concept empty of specific content. 

One gets the impression of a committee asking itself, “Do people understand the relationship between these four goals and an achievable, deliverable end state?” Worried that people don’t, the committee comes up with the idea of a video that’ll make the relationship explicit.

In essence, the video is saying, if we achieve the Four Comprehensives, then the party will have succeeded in delivering what people need. Its most basic purpose is to define success -- and to do so in an achievable way.

So how does the video connect the four principles to the Chinese Dream?

The logic runs like this: Prosperity is the ultimate goal. Reform is the “drive” -- the way to get there. Rule of law is the “guarantee” that this will happen. And the party is the entity that can make it all take place.

Not every one of the four principles is emphasized equally. Moderate prosperity, in particular, gets short shrift, maybe because both China’s economy and its stock market are in worrisome states.

But a good deal of attention is focused on reform and the rule of law, interpreted with reference to the fight against corruption -- the party’s most serious long-term problem. The video tells viewers, “You think your dad can protect you? No way!” This is a direct reference to the widespread sense that children of influential party members can get away with anything. There’s even an expression that captures that impulse: “My father is Li Gang!” Supposedly uttered by a drunken driver fleeing the scene of an accident, the phrase represents impunity based on status.

More pointedly still, the video says that both “flies” and “tigers” will be caught. Here the idea is that not only small-time corrupt officials but also the big players will be arrested for corruption. Xi has brilliantly used anti-corruption laws to eliminate senior political opponents -- most of whom have been, almost certainly, thoroughly corrupt. Given the depth of corruption in the senior ranks of the party, it’s actually been pretty straightforward for Xi to combine anti-corruption with consolidation of political power.

Then there’s the Communist Party itself, mentioned but never visually depicted. The implicit and obvious assumption of the video,  and of the policy, is that there’s no one else to make these changes. From a propaganda standpoint, this is little short of brilliant. Instead of focusing attention on the party, focus on objectives only the party can achieve.

The underlying message, then, is that there are deliverables. Pollution is mentioned as a problem -- then cleared up in, literally, a puff of smoke. The Chinese Dream can be delivered insofar as reform proceeds and bad guys are caught. Moderate prosperity, of course, can mean anything. Indeed, compared to the past, most Chinese are now moderately prosperous.

Online, the video has been criticized as offensively dumb. But that’s not really the point. The video manages to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party is on the right track, notwithstanding contemporary problems. Its argument can’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a music video.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net