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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Realising a Xiaokang Society: Implications for CPC, China and the world

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on January 04, 2020 and can be accessed here.

2021 is a historic year as it marks a hundred years of the Communist Party of China (CPC). It is evident that the Chinese government will take a stronger line this year to make sure that its image as fulfilling the destiny of greatness is not tampered.

In 2017, Xi Jinping declared three important centenary goals: to build a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021, to achieve basic national modernisation by 2035 and to build a “modern socialist country” by 2049 to mark the hundred-year anniversary of the People’s Republic China.

The idea of a moderately prosperous society comes from the concept of 小康社会 (xiaokang shehui) translated as “small comforts.” It is a Confucian idea, as Josef Mahoney explains, “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 BC) 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…. Confucius appears to have viewed creating a xiaokang society as a threshold accomplishment, one necessary for the long-term project of creating datong.”

However, Xi Jinping is not the only political leader to speak of xiaokang. The concept has long been adopted by Chinese Marxists. In fact, previous leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao all invoked the concept when setting policy goals. However, what is evident is the importance the Chinese government is according to the accomplishment of these centenary goals. The CCP has realised that economic development underpins its legitimacy, and it is intent on defeating narratives that suggest that its political system has stymied happiness in the country. Last week, Xi Jinping declared in his New Year address, “The CPC bears its eternal great cause in mind, and the centenary only ushers in the prime of life. We adhere to putting people at the center, stay true to our original aspiration, keep our mission well in mind, break the waves and sail out for our journey ahead, and we will certainly realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

To achieve the centennial goal, Xi Jinping back in 2017, stressed the need to deal with financial risks, tackle extreme poverty and to focus on pollution. The Chinese government declared that it eliminated extreme poverty in the country late last year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the global recession have been troubling for relative and urban poverty. But the government is unlikely to admit problems and will continue its narrative that it succeeded its centennial goals irrespective of ground reality.

As the goals are so closely tied to CCP’s legitimacy, the Chinese government will also take a strong line on domestic and foreign issues. The space for internal dissent in Hong Kong or elsewhere—as evidenced by the arrest of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan—is shrinking. On the other hand, the Chinese government is intent on showcasing how well the coronavirus has been controlled within the country, and it will continue to speed up vaccinations to showcase this point. When it comes to external relations, with India, or the US, the Chinese will be intent on saving face this year.

Whether China achieves a xiaokang society or not is no longer an important question. How the CCP portrays this narrative, however, will be the one to watch this year.

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