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“Harmonious” In China

Monday, March 31, 2008
Due to the rapid progress of modern science and technology, humanity is entering a new age. In this new era, all people seek peace and development. The development of science and technology offers a future with limitless promise to mankind, but at the same time confronts humanity with new problems. This reminds everyone of the necessity to diligently strengthen the building of culture and broadly increase the cultural sophistication and degree of civilization of humanity, in order to achieve “harmony” among men, as well as between human society and nature. This alone accords with the fundamental interest of all humankind.

These grand words sound like something Chinese Communist Party (ccp) General Secretary Hu Jintao or Premier Wen Jiabao might say in explaining their agenda of “constructing a harmonious society” as they manage China’s “peaceful rise” to great power status. In fact, they were spoken in October 1989, just months after Hu’s political patron, Deng Xiaoping, ordered the military to suppress a peaceful, nationwide protest movement. The occasion was a government-sponsored celebration of the 2,540th year of the birth of Confucius. In the brief welcoming remarks quoted above, party elder Gu Mu, an economic reformer under Deng, argued that there was an urgent need to look back to Chinese tradition and its emphasis on “harmony” (in Chinese, hexie).

The idea of “building a harmonious society” has a history, one thread of which is very recent and the other thousands of years old. A weaving together of the strands places current ccp propaganda and prc political discourse in a larger pattern of thought. Moving between ancient and contemporary meanings, as well as philosophical and political usages, may offer a better understanding of why so many people in China are talking about “harmony.” Studying the epiphenomenon of “harmonious society” rhetoric raises important questions about China’s current vector in the broad sweep of its remarkable history, marked by revolutionary rupture and continuity with the past.

The pseudo-Confucianization of the ccp

The ccp pays more attention to linguistic nuance than the average political organization. On the one hand, this results in a dearth of spontaneous official language. Every speech by a party leader and every proclamation by a party organ seems like a recording rather than a performance, as if there are no real-time speech acts, but only recitations of preapproved transcripts. Yet this very scriptedness is the hermeneutic key to unlocking ccp discourse. Departures from established scripture are easier to identify. And because of the care with which the ccp scripts itself, changes in terminology signify shifts in power or policy with greater predictability than is the case in more anarchic linguistic environments, as in countries with less constricted media, better articulated public opinion, or more open political competition.

An important recent twist in party scripts is the prominence given to words drawn from the classical vocabulary of the Chinese tradition, as opposed to those originating in Western revolutionary discourses. Founded in 1921, the ccp drew on Marxist-Leninist theory for its core political concepts. Party history also traces its ideological roots back to the May Fourth protest movement that erupted in Beijing in 1919. The May Fourth movement itself, epitomized in the demand for “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” was part of a modernist revolt against traditional Confucian culture. Mao Zedong, who determined ccp orthodoxy from the early 1930s until his death in 1976, held classical values in open contempt as he dragged his “new China” down a revolutionary path. On those occasions when Mao did invoke heroes from the annals of Chinese history, they were rebels against the Confucian mainstream, like the autocratic founding emperors of the Qin and Ming dynasties or utopian Taiping revolutionaries of the nineteenth century.

ccp leaders have long insisted on doing things their own way, or, in the well-worn phrase, “with Chinese characteristics.” The party’s insistence on sinifying the revolution goes back to tensions with the Soviets over leadership of the international communist movement. But until recently, if “Chinese characteristics” referred to tradition at all, it was as a yoke to be lifted. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ( 1966–76) was the last and perhaps most destructive phase in Mao’s effort to make China blaze its own revolutionary path by razing its heritage to the ground. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, societal and state actors started picking up the pieces of China ’s “smashed” cultural inheritance. Local scholars in the provinces and a handful of prominent academics stoked the fires of a “national studies” fever, with major institutes of Confucian research established by the mid- 1980s.

An important recent twist in party scripts is the prominence given to words drawn from the classical vocabulary.

This revival of traditional values was by no means universal. On the contrary, many intellectuals and students in the 1980s embraced Western political values and cultural idioms. Instead of appealing to the classical ideal of “harmony,” for example, social critics discussed the need for China to be more tolerant (kuanrong) and pluralistic (duoyuan), like Western countries. The popular tv documentary “River Elegy,” which lambasted traditional Chinese culture for its insularity and conservatism, captured the mood of a restive, reformist populace. For a fleeting moment in the late 1980s, the forces of reform and opposition cohered into a social movement. In the spring of 1989, university students, who saw themselves as reclaiming the legacy of the May Fourth idealists, led the movement into the heart of the Chinese polity, Tiananmen Square.

In the aftermath of the June Fourth tragedy, traditionalist themes resurfaced in both intellectual discourse and party rhetoric — as seen in the October 1989 Confucius conference mentioned above. There was another wave of Confucian-studies institution-building, with complicated intersections of scholarly and political interests. In the 1990s, the ccp experimented with using traditional values and Confucian political ideals to define the substance of “Chinese characteristics.” The Confucian turn in ccp rhetoric reached a new level with Jiang Zemin’s final address as party general secretary to the National People’s Congress in November of 2002. In Jiang’s swan song as paramount leader, he proudly declared that China had reached the level of a “society of moderate prosperity” (xiaokang shehui).

The phrase sounds modern enough in English translation. But the original Chinese term, xiaokang, is a word with thousands of years of history behind it, as most Chinese speakers know. In the Classic of Rites, one of the canonical texts all educated gentlemen were once expected to study, “moderate prosperity” describes the unjust, imperfect world Confucius saw around him in the sixth century bc. Confucius contrasted the fallen condition of “moderate prosperity,” where coercive rulers barely contained the effects of people’s unbridled pursuit of their own self-interest, with the utopian vision of “great unity” (datong), in which rulers and ruled worked together to achieve a shared concept of the common good.

The CCP was no longer the party of utopian “great unity” à la the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Confucius’s description of “great unity,” which excited late-nineteenth-century reformers like Kang Youwei, is not entirely unlike the communist paradise dreamt up by Marx and Engels. The stress in “great unity” ideology on the common interest also hints at the possibility of an ancient Chinese republican tradition. But Jiang Zemin ’s promotion of “moderate prosperity” actually undermined the Confucian ideal even as the ccp seemed to be moving in a neo-Confucian direction (by using a classical buzzword). This strange inversion of tradition was a by-product of the increasing heterogeneity of the sources of ccp ideology. The phrase “moderate prosperity” was a traditionalist anomaly in a language of politics still dominated by revolutionary, modernist ideas. Most Chinese people got the point that “moderate prosperity” was Jiang’s polite way of saying “capitalism.” The language conveyed to the Chinese people what they had known since the economically liberal Deng Xiaoping had taken over as paramount leader in the late 1970s: The ccp was no longer the party of utopian “great unity” à la the Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It would pursue the more modest goal of moderate prosperity, and people were free to pursue their self-interests. Indeed, they were free only to pursue their self-interests. In suppressing revolts against a society of selfish prosperity in 1976, 1978–79, 1986, and 1989, the ccp> made this eminently clear.

Not long after Jiang’s speech, another term of ancient pedigree started appearing prominently in ccp scripts alongside “moderate prosperity.” Beginning in the late 1980s, the concept of a “harmonious society” (hexie shehui) rose steadily from keyword to buzzword to paradigm. The revival of the harmony ideal received significant stimulus from abroad. Princeton intellectual historian Y ü Ying-shih and Harvard philosophy professor Tu Wei-ming championed traditional values like harmony at a high degree of intellectual sophistication, exerting a profound influence on Chinese thought, particularly after 1989. Another significant feature in the landscape of traditionalist discourse was the broader East Asian context. The economic success coupled with social and political conservatism of Japan and the “Little Dragons” (South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan) represented to some observers admirable Confucianized alternatives to the West ’s liberal-democratic model of modernization. Singapore in particular — the one dragon not to embrace a liberal political model — became an important source of ideas about harmony. One of the earliest instances of promoting the term “harmony” ( hexie) in the state-run Chinese press, in fact, occurred when relatively liberal ccp leader Li Ruihuan, then Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, returned from a fact-finding mission to Singapore in late 2001. Again and again, the People’s Daily quoted Li using the word “harmony” to praise the familial, societal, and multi-ethnic solidarity achieved by Singapore ’s soft-authoritarian rulers.

Today, talk of “harmony” pervades social, political, and economic discussion in China.

Today, talk of “harmony” pervades social, political, and economic discussion in China. Hu Jintao, paramount leader of the ccp, government, and military since 2003, has made “building a socialist harmonious society” a unifying concept of his administration. “Social harmony” made its debut as a key goal in high-level party pronouncements in “Central Party Resolutions to Strengthen the Building of the Party’s Ability to Maintain a Hold on Government,” approved by the ccp Central Committee in September 2004. Then in February 2005, President Hu gave a major speech to provincial officials and high-level cadres on the need to “increase capacity to build a socialist harmonious society.” President Hu declared, with no hint of irony, that the party must struggle to achieve harmony as China entered a fragile new phase of development. In a dizzying theoretical discursus, Hu explained that the aspiration to social harmony was deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture, European socialism, Marxism-Leninism, and Chinese Communism. He first praised Confucius ’ saying that “harmony is prized above all” (Hu ignored the rest of the passage — which was spoken not by Confucius but one of his students — in which the disciple argued that it is not enough to know and seek harmony alone, because even harmony must be regulated with a sense of ritual propriety). President Hu next cited the ancient utilitarian philosopher Mozi — who was in fact a harsh critic of Confucian teaching. Hu then leapt back to one line from Mencius on the need to care for the young and elderly and another line from the Classic of Rites on treating all men as brothers — thereby stripping Confucianism of its core familial and particularist ethics. Hu concluded with allusions to the communal, egalitarian ideology of the mid-nineteenth-century Taiping rebel leader Hong Xiuquan and late Qing dynasty reformer Kang Youwei. President Hu ’s brief history of Chinese ideas of harmony ignored the subtlety and tension in classical arguments over the term ’s significance, presenting instead a generic picture of sages ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, all agreeing that everyone should get along with one another.

The party’s explication of the theory behind harmony is often superficial and selective, but its contemporary implications are much clearer. Party documents dealing with harmony openly acknowledge the discord caused by increasing disparities between rich and poor and city and countryside. President Hu ’s speech, and subsequent “social harmony” literature, is refreshingly upfront about the serious problems that have triggered the push for harmoniousness. The goal of harmony arises dialectically out of the contradictions inherent in Jiang Zemin ’s success in moving the country toward “moderate prosperity.” Social harmony is a platform for broadening the party’s mandate from managing economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s to stewarding socio-economic development for the twenty-first century. At the same time, official pronouncements make it clear that the party will not jeopardize gdp, fdi,  or market reforms in harmony’s name; nor will they betray the urban middle and upper classes who are profiting richly from the current economic boom.

The number of articles featuring “harmony” in their titles has increased from around 30 in 2003 to 6,600 in 2005.

Since Hu’s 2005 speech, books and articles are published, conferences funded, and speeches applauded so long as they include “harmonious society” in the title. The largest database of Chinese journals shows an increase in the number of articles featuring “harmony” in their titles from around 30 in 2003 and 150 in 2004 to 6,600 in 2005. In the case of media directly controlled by the government, the quantum leap in allusions to “harmony” was obligatory. In other instances — for example, academics seeking to influence policymakers — references to “harmonious society” seem to purchase acceptability at little cost. Who doesn’t want harmony, after all? Who could object to the general definition repeated frequently by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao: “The socialist harmonious society we want to build should be democratic and ruled by law, fair and just, trustworthy and fraternal, full of vitality, stable and orderly, and maintaining harmony between man and nature ”? To gentle critics of the Hu-Wen administration, “harmonious society” is a shibboleth signaling that the author is willing to work for reform within the ideological framework provided by the state.

Even activists and dissidents find recourse to the language of harmony. Perhaps the most startling example is Beijing's nemesis, the Dalai Lama. As monks and youths were taking to the streets of Lhasa in March, the Dalai Lama regularly invoked the Hu Jintao government ’s agenda of “social harmony.” In his statement to commemorate the 49th Tibetan Uprising Day, for example, the Dalai Lama urged the Party to deliver on its promise: “The world is eagerly waiting to see how the present Chinese leadership will put into effect its avowed concepts of ‘harmonious society’ and ‘peaceful rise,’” he wrote. Similarly, at a “rights defenders” conference at Yale Law School last year, Chinese activists, working on issues ranging from transparent village elections to constitutional protections of civil liberties to gay rights, informed a friendly audience of international human rights groups that they use the language of “harmony” to advance their causes. The counter-discourse of these activists, like the shibboleths of moderates, raises difficult questions about strategies of loyal opposition and the relationship between public speech, power, and legitimacy. Are reformers drawing out the liberal tendencies within party doctrine? Are they undermining and transforming party ideology from within? Or are they inadvertently legitimating official discourse by accepting its terms?

Ancient meanings of harmony

What, in fact, are those terms? What does “building a harmonious society” actually mean to those who say it and those who hear it? President Hu Jintao’s definition in terms of democracy, justice, fraternity, vitality, stability, and environmental sustainability is inclusive enough to be a platform for an über-coalition of Liberals, Social Democrats, Conservatives, Neo-Liberals, Neo-Authoritarians, and Greens (were the prc a European-style multi-party system). The promise of a more harmonious society reaches out to farmers angry about rural poverty and corruption, middle classes anxious about social conflict, and everyone suffering from environmental degradation. It offers an olive branch to critics of authoritarianism while simultaneously indicating to ccp hard-liners a willingness to be tough, brutal even, if “harmony” demands it. A look at the variety of meanings of “harmony” in classical sources from the Chinese tradition reveals the deep roots in this strategic ambiguity in the “social harmony” ideal. Studying ancient arguments over “harmony” may even clarify the diverse messages generated by this single term today.

Harmony was a central concept in ancient philosophy. The major Chinese traditions — Confucian, Taoist, Legalist, and Buddhist — all prized “harmony,” in the general sense of “getting along,” as an ultimate value (although they disagreed on how to achieve it). Confucians in particular emphasized the single-character term for “harmony” (he), which appears in all of Confucianism’s “Five Classics” and three of the canonical “Four Books.” According to mainstream Confucian ideas, humans were to live in harmony with nature and the harmonious tendency of heaven and earth; kingdoms were to act in concert with one another under the noncoercive lead of a virtuous emperor; rulers were to govern their populaces peaceably and with a popular mandate; families and lineages were to resolve their own disputes and create a strong sense of hierarchical solidarity; and gentlemen were to attain a state of inner harmony through rigorous study, ritual practice, and moral cultivation. The most forceful articulation of this concept of personal and communal harmony comes from the Doctrine of the Mean, a core text of ethical teachings attributed to Confucius and memorized by millennia of educated Chinese in preparation for the civil service examinations. The Doctrine defines harmony as a state of equilibrium where pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are moderated and restrained, allowing “all things in the universe to attain the Way.”

The yearning for harmony among individuals and states, and between man and nature, comes across clearly in classical texts. The ancients even promise that harmony leads to wealth and power, without any need to sacrifice unity and equality. According to the Doctrine, “when moderation and harmony are attained, heaven and earth are in the right position and material things are bounteous. ” In the Analects, Confucius insists that “with equality, there is no poverty; with harmony, there is no scarcity; with security, there is no rebellion. ” One of Confucius’ most important interpreters, the third-century bc philosopher Xunzi, reasoned that harmony leads to unity, unity increases strength, strength creates power, and power makes for victory over want.

A king praises a councilor for being “in harmony” with him, but is chided for confusing harmony with subservience.

But there were discordant notes in this celebration of “harmony” as the key to prosperity and solidarity, even among the ancients. Historical chronicles, compiled not long after Confucius ’s death, record frank arguments between kings and their political advisors in which the meaning of “harmony” was sharply contested. In these showdowns at court, critical officials insisted that “harmony” was not simply the absence of discord and dissent. On the contrary, they argue that the antonym of “harmony” is “agreement” ( tong). When a self-satisfied king praises his fawning councilor for being “in harmony” with him, an outspoken advisor chides the ruler for confusing “harmony” with conformity and subservience. A truly “harmonious” minister points out flaws in the ruler’s thinking and presents him with alternative courses of action. Open difference of opinion is in fact essential to “harmonious” decision-making. The good minister is like a chef who combines flavors to make a well-balanced dish, or a composer who harmonizes notes and instruments to create a lovely melody. Who eats soup made by adding water to water? Who listens to musicians all playing the same strings on a single instrument? What kind of ruler wants to silence dissenting views?

In the Analects, Confucius himself emphasized this notion of “harmony” as loyal opposition. “The gentleman is harmonious although he does not assent,” he observed. “The small man assents, but is not harmonious.” When asked once by a duke whether there is a saying that can destroy a territory, Confucius responded: “What about the saying: ‘The only joy in being a prince is that no one opposes what one says.’ If what the ruler says is good, then it is a good thing that it will not be opposed. But if the ruler is wrong, he cannot be opposed. Is this not, then, close to a saying that could lead a territory to destruction? ” These well-known classical uses of the term “harmony” to describe an open decision-making process explain why in modern Chinese one occasionally finds hexie translated not as “harmony,” but rather as “consensus.” The government’s promise to build a society with more “consensus” is lost in the translation of hexie as “harmony,” but may explain why liberal elements in Chinese society like academics and activists see promise in the term. It also provides a link between official ideology and many China-watchers ’ observation, strengthened by the results of the recent Seventeenth Communist Party Congress, that Hu Jintao is neither a dictator nor a democrat, but rather governs through consensus within limits.

Confucius said “harmony” results from a ruler’s balancing his desire to be lenient with his need to be harsh.

There is, finally, another ancient layer of meaning that lies buried beneath harmony ’s better-known associations with prosperity, solidarity, and consensus. Rarely mentioned in scholarly discussions or government documents is Confucius ’s observation that “harmony” results from a ruler’s ability to balance his desire to be lenient with the need to be harsh toward his people. “When the government is lenient then the people grow bold,” Confucius noted in the Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period, another of the Five Classics. “Their boldness must be rectified with harshness. The people suffer from such ferocity, and due to their suffering, they must be treated with leniency. Leniency balances out harshness, and harshness balances out leniency. This is the way for government to achieve harmony. ” Only the rare prince of exceptional virtue might transcend the oscillation between toleration and suppression. Since most of the men Confucius taught would serve imperfect rulers, they needed to learn the art of “harmonizing” being feared and being loved. The safest course, in fact, was to err on the side of fear. A talented minister of Confucius ’s time, Zi Chan, explained that people fear the bright flames and heat of fire, and so avoid burning themselves. Water seems weak and gentle, and so they swim and play in it, and frequently drown. “Liberality is difficult,” the old minister concluded. “How true the prime minister’s words,” agreed Confucius.

The “harmonious society” ideal, like many effective political platforms, says different things to different people. To those who are benefiting most from China ’s sizzling economic growth, “harmony” implies social stability and status quo gradualism that will protect assets acquired and ensure their future enjoyment. To those on the sidelines of the boom, “harmony” sounds like a renewed socialist commitment to the welfare of the rural masses and urban poor. To educated elites chafing at restrictions on speech, media, assembly, and a variety of civil and political liberties, “harmony” hints at the toleration of dissent and gradual implementation of democracy and the rule of law. To nationalists and cultural conservatives, “harmony” is a vehicle for the revival of Chinese traditional thinking and values. To party loyalists and neo-authoritarians, “harmony” signals the leadership’s mastery of the alteration between leniency and harshness, and reassures the political elite that the party intends to maintain its monopoly of force and philosophy. In the end, after all, the ccp positions itself as the sole entity capable of maintaining peaceful coexistence among the winners, losers, and critics of reform.

Forged on the anvil of war and revolution, the ccp for most of its history valorized revolutionary political struggle. Mao Zedong was the great poet of continuous revolution and class struggle. Even in Deng Xiaoping ’s reform era, the motto “get rich first” encouraged competition. The current “harmony” ideal finally gives expression to many Chinese people’s revolution-and-reform-weariness, tapping into a longing for a cooperative, nonantagonistic conception of the polity. But how long will farmers who practice “rightful resistance” submit to the authority of petition bureaus before they demand a more radical, structural response to their grievances over property, elections, corruption, and pollution? How long will “rights defenders,” journalists, artists, intellectuals, and students put up with the paternalistic limits on their legal activism, political opinions, and cultural activities? How far will hard-liners let the leniency go before demanding toughness? How corrupt will middle-classes and the business community let the government get before they decide that the situation no longer works in their self-interest? Who is genuinely committed to a general concept of social harmony? Or is “harmony” merely the sum total of each individual’s and each group’s achievement of its desired ends?

Many Chinese political analysts were surprised that at the Seventeenth Party Congress, Hu Jintao ’s concept of “the scientific outlook on development” (kexue fazhan guan) — instead of “harmonious society” — was enshrined alongside Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and the ideas of Mao and Deng as Chinese Communist orthodoxy. Was harmony talk considered too socialistic? Did it imply too obvious a reversal of Deng ’s and Jiang’s emphasis on growth and “productive forces,” not to mention Mao’s focus on class struggle? Or was the modernist and technocratic ring of “scientific development” preferred over the mixed classical resonance of “harmony”? The substitution is important, but should not be seen to negate entirely the prominent role of “social harmony” language in shaping public debate and government ideology of the first Hu Jintao administration. “Harmony” discourse is an interesting test case to see how the resurgence in native Chinese values and statecraft thought might affect the future of the Chinese polity. Will hierarchical, authoritarian, and paternalistic aspects of the heritage reinforce the party ’s claims to a top-down monopoly of decision-making power? Or will Chinese political and intellectual leaders find inspiration in socialist, republican, and liberal principles articulated in ancient texts, as they develop a political philosophy based on enlightened Chinese characteristics, not Confucian caricature?