China yearns for Hu's 'harmonious society'
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - The Chinese Communist Party's policymaking Central Committee began
its annual plenary session on Sunday. A major focus of the four-day session is
to set policy principles to implement President Hu Jintao's signature concept
of building a "harmonious society".
This is the first time in 25 years after late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping
launched economic reforms that the party Central Committee will devote an
annual plenum to social equality. All
other such gatherings in the past quarter of a century have concentrated on
economic reforms or ideological issues.
The fact that this year's party plenum focuses on building a "harmonious
society" has twofold significance.
On the one hand, it is evident that Hu now is firmly in power so that his idea
is being materialized into the party's line. This is the sixth plenum Hu has
chaired since he replaced Jiang Zemin as the party's general secretary in late
2002. However, Jiang did not give up his last and most powerful official post
as chairman of the Central Military Commission until two years later. In this
sense, it could be said that Hu had been working under Jiang's political
Two weeks before the convention, Hu sacked Chen Liangyu as Shanghai party
chief. As Chen, who was also a politburo member, is widely considered a major
member of the so-called "Shanghai Gang" backed by Jiang, Hu's bold move proves
he has walked out of Jiang's shadow. The timing of Chen's removal was by no
means coincidental but was designed to deliver the message that Hu is in full
charge of this plenum so that his idea can be elaborated and implemented.
This suggests, furthermore, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will likely
to revise its charter at its 17th National Congress next year to include Hu's
"harmonious society" idea as the party's guiding ideology.
On the other hand, the theme of this plenum strongly suggests there now are so
many acutely "unharmonious" factors in Chinese society that the party
policymakers have to spend their annual gathering to ponder possible solutions.
For if society were quite harmonious, the party elite would devote their
precious time to other more urgent issues.
Indeed, social problems, such as the widening wealth gap and social injustices,
have piled up to such an extent that if the CCP were to fail to address them
properly, its very legitimacy would be questioned and challenged.
Widening wealth gap
An irony in the era of Mao was that where there was no class struggle, he would
try to create one. For while he aimed at turning China into a classless
society, he thought the only way to attain this was through endless class
struggles. Indeed, one major reason why many Chinese remain nostalgic for
Mao three decades after his death is expanding social inequality.
After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Mao literally deprived
everyone of all private property through land reform and nationalization
campaigns. In this way he had as a practical matter brought social equality to
China in the sense that everyone was equally poor. But Mao thought enemies of
the working class should be continuously suppressed politically and
ideologically, so he launched mass movements one after another, climaxing with
the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which only ended when he passed away.
In sharp contrast, the economic reforms over the past 20-plus
years have made the country richer and stronger, while at the same time
creating a wealth gap that keeps widening. Thus Hu and his colleagues now have
to spare no effort to deal with the problem to make society more "harmonious".
In other words, they are worried that class struggles will inevitably erupt if
social stratification is not effectively checked.
And there are good reasons for the CCP elite to be deeply concerned. The wealth
gap has caused increasingly serious social differentiation, threatening social
A survey by the National Bureau of Statistics last year showed that 10% of
urban residents commanded 45% of the total wealth in Chinese cities, while the
bottom 10% shared only 2% of the total wealth. Another survey, by the New
Fortune magazine, showed that in 2003, the top 400 tycoons had already amassed
more than 303 billion yuan (US$38 billion) - more than triple that year's
entire gross domestic product (GDP) of Guizhou, one of China's poorest
The Gini Coefficient (GC) in Chinese cities now is well above 0.4. According to
a study by a Nankai University team headed by Professor Chen Zongsheng, the GC
in 1988 was 0.35 and rose to nearly 0.5 in 2003. GC is a measurement of wealth
disparity that takes a value between zero and one; the bigger the number, the
greater the disparity. A value of 0.4 is generally regarded as a red alert and
0.5 means likely social unrest. By this yardstick, Chinese cities are on the
verge of social unrest.
The wealth gap between urban and rural areas is also expanding. In 2005,
average per capita income of urban residents was 3.22 times that of farmers.
Wealth disparity between regions is widening too. Per capita GDP in the richest
province in coastal eastern China now is 10 times that in the poorest province
in western China. The income gap among workers in various industries is also
Chinese officials and researchers now generally agree that the widening wealth
gap is the major factor hampering social harmony. Ding Yuanzu, a researcher
with the National Development and Reform Commission's Academy of Macroeconomic
Research, said that to build a harmonious society, the underdeveloped regions
and low-income people should be taken better care of, according to a report by
Xinhua news agency.
Officials and researchers are also concerned that if the government fails to
take effective measures to narrow inequalities, the public may stop supporting
its economic reform and open-door policy, resulting in more social unrest. It
is thus expected that the party plenum will set policy principles to narrow the
income gap through reforms in the current wealth-distribution system.
One of the major causes for rapidly expanding wealth disparity is social
injustice, which is also a major source of growing public discontent. Many
people have gained their wealth not through their own enterprise but through
their connections with officialdom.
Children of many senior officials have been immediately appointed as executives
of large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) despite being relatively inexperienced.
Or, if they decided to set up their own businesses, it was easy for them to get
financial support. For example, when Chen Liangyu's son kicked off his business
in Beijing, Chen granted 1 billion yuan to support him.
Although China's economy has become relatively market-oriented, many resources
are still in the firm grip of the government. Hence for a private business
person, the shortcut to becoming rich is to collude with officials. A private
businessman in Shenzhen said: "If one relies on his own hard work, one may in
practice make a living by running a small business, but if one wants to become
rich, one must gang up with officials."
Therefore collusion between entrepreneurs and officials is running wild. One of
the most notorious shortcuts for some to become rich quickly has been to
collude with officials to speculate on land lots for construction. The parcels
are taken away from farmers with minimal compensations and then sold at high
prices. Land acquisition has become such a problem that most of the nearly
90,000 mass demonstrations (those involving more than 100 protesters) in 2004
were triggered by unjust land requisition.
Entrepreneur-official collusion has also been rampant in coal-mining. With the
protection of local officials, private coal-mine owners simply ignored safety
regulations to cut production costs. As a result, thousands of
miners are killed in accidents.
The restructuring of the SOEs has also given the opportunity for some
executives to become rich by pocketing state assets at low cost through the
so-called management buyout scheme. Meanwhile massive numbers of workers in the
state sector wait to be laid off.
The list of social injustices could go on and on.
But it is obvious that official corruption is at the root of such social
inequalities. Only when official corruption is effectively checked can social
fairness and justice be restored.
By sacking Chen, Hu has shown his resolve in cracking down on corruption.
However, since official corruption has become so rampant, arduous efforts are
still needed. Moreover, a more effective supervision system should be
established to prevent further injustices.
All in all, there are many other problems to be dealt with to make Chinese
society more harmonious. However, restoring social justice and narrowing the
widening wealth gap are the most important and urgent issues. The party plenum
may set policy principles, but the key lies in whether such principles will be
For ordinary Chinese, Hu's idea of building a harmonious society may sound
good. However, if it cannot be put into practice, they may feel it is
irrelevant to their lives.