A moderately prosperous society focuses on both economic development and beyond
By Josef Gregory Mahoney  ·  2020-08-10  ·   Source: NO.33 AUGUST 13, 2020
A family chats in their new home in Damxung County, Tibet Autonomous Region in southwest China on August 2. They recently moved out of a place with harsh natural conditions (XINHUA)
According to the Book of Rites, one of the five Confucian classics, the growing social chaos during China's Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) that put the goal of establishing a datong society—a great unity of peace and harmony—out of immediate reach made the philosopher fret. Nevertheless, he argued that positive steps forward could be taken by building a xiaokang society.
Literally translated as "small comforts," xiaokang has been a concept in Chinese Marxist theory and policymaking since then top leader Deng Xiaoping introduced it in 1979, and is currently translated officially as "moderately prosperous."

While others have written extensively on what moderately prosperous means and how it differentiates from a middle class society, drawing connections between China's incredible economic development, rising incomes and massive efforts to eliminate extreme poverty, I will focus on two aspects. They are found in both Confucius and contemporary Chinese political thought exemplified in recent years and especially this year, the deadline for creating a xiaokang society.

Vegetable greenhouses in Daihua Town, Changshun County in Guizhou Province, southwest China, on August 2 (XINHUA)

Inter-generational goal

The concept of a xiaokang society has been developed and advanced by successive

generations of Chinese leadership since Deng. In 1997, under Jiang Zemin's leadership, the xiaokang goal was officially adopted during the 15th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Jiang also linked it to the 100th anniversary of the CPC's founding. During Hu Jintao' tenure, at the 16th CPC National Congress in 2002, numerical goals for various aspects of xiaokang were set and in 2007, at the 17th CPC National Congress, it was decided explicitly that 2020 would be the target year.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping introduced the Four-Pronged Comprehensive Strategy as a guiding concept. The strategy calls for making comprehensive moves to complete building a moderately prosperous society, deepen reform, advance the law-based governance of China, and strengthen Party self-discipline.

In 2017, at the 19th CPC National Congress, Xi set achieving a xiaokang society as a centenary goal, to be achieved by the time the Party celebrates its centenary in 2021. This is to be followed by another centenary goal, to be achieved after two 15-year periods, that is, to achieve basic national modernization by 2035, and then onward to realize the Chinese dream of turning China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful by 2049, the centenary anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Altogether, these plans are measures to carry out the three-step development strategy put forward by Deng in 1987. The first step is to double the 1980 gross national product (GNP) and to address the shortage of food and clothing. This objective was attained by 1990 through reform and opening up. The second step is to quadruple the 1980 GNP by the end of the 20th century. This was achieved in 1995, through deepening reform and opening up and addressing regional inequality, especially investing the wealth accumulated in the eastern part of the country in the western part. The third step is to build from a xiaokang to a fully modern socialist country by 2050.

Order and ritual

While the Spring and Autumn Period proved fertile for Chinese poetry and philosophy, the continued aftershocks of the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.) fractured Chinese polity, producing the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), which Confucius appears to have anticipated and by most accounts also lived to see.

Facing growing inter-state conflicts guided by poor and self-serving leadership, Confucius was concerned deeply about cultural and political degeneration, which he linked explicitly with rampant corruption, and in turn, with the lack of proper rituals and order.

Indeed, his concept for ritual—li—is the primary concern of the Book of Rites, as well as numerous other works attributed to him. Consequently, li has long been a central focus of Confucianism and Neo-Confucian thinkers.

While some have argued that li is an overarching concept and therefore difficult to define, complicated in part by an etymology linking it initially with religious sacrifice, according to an oft-quoted definition from Wing-tsit Chan, a scholar of Chinese philosophy, it came to mean "ceremony, ritual, decorum, rules of propriety, good form, good custom, etc., and has even been equated with natural law."

In this sense, proper li would describe an effective intersection of the right forms of knowledge, laws, organization, and public and private activities capable of producing a well-ordered society that can progressively resolve problems and increasingly produce peace and harmony.

Traditional values

Confucius appears to have viewed creating a xiaokang society as a threshold accomplishment, one necessary for the long-term project of creating datong.

In contemporary Chinese Marxist vernacular, it is not uncommon to link conceptually Confucius' vision of datong with that of communism. Indeed, as Confucius describes datong, again from the Book of Rites, the image he presents is one that aligns in significant ways with some utopian portrayals of what real communism might look like, if ever achieved.

In addition to a well-developed and comprehensive system of social welfare, he describes a society with a deeply socialistic ethos, where the infirm and elderly are provided for, where people take care of all children as though they were their own, where doors and gates can remain unlocked, and so on.

The quip that Confucius was the first Chinese Marxist is by now well-worn among Chinese scholars. Nevertheless, while China in many ways deviates from traditional Confucian values, many of the developments seen since 1979 and especially more recently align closely with some of Confucius' core concerns and concepts.

If li as ritual is understood in its contemporary xiaokang context, then it can encompass not only economic development goals understood in terms of GDP and per-capita GDP, it can also include the tremendous efforts to eliminate corruption, eradicate extreme poverty, and advance the rule of law. It likewise overlaps with major advances seen in China in recent years to advance green technology and reduce pollution.

Finally, above all, while the novel coronavirus epidemic threatened to spoil 2020 as the xiaokang year, China has taken effective measures to contain the outbreak and returned to positive growth while other nations, including the United States, continue to experience major crises and decline. China has not relented its poverty alleviation endeavors while fighting the epidemic. It is on track to complete building a meaningful and durable xiaokang.

The author is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai

(Printed Edition Title: Order Among Chaos)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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