In ancient Chinese the relation between names (ming) and actuality (shi) was a fiercely debated topic amongst philosophers and statesman. But no matter if essentialist or nominalist ((If you are an essentialist/realist you believe that any entity in the world has an “essence”, defined by its own specific characteristics, which we are able to perceive and capture in words. As a nominalist on the other hand you would believe that the things surrounding us can not be fully perceived but it is the process of attributing words and defining the relations between them that matters. Therefore realists would be looking for the “correct names” that match the true nature of a thing while nominalists are looking for the “appropriate names” that make sense in an overall context, a reason why there are different translations for zhengming depending on what philosophical outlook the author is thought to have had.)) —they all believed that finding the correct or appropriate names (zhengming) to describe the world around us was of utmost importance, not merely in a philosophical sense, but also in a political one. When Confucius was asked what the most important task was in an administering a state, he is said to have replied: “Without question it would be to insure that names are used properly.” Because, as he continues to explain, “if the names are not appropriate, the words will not ring true and if what is said is not reasonable, then nothing can be accomplished.”
It seem this philosophical insight was lost somewhere on the way: Today’s “harmonious society” is characterized by intensifying social conflicts accompanied by a strong sense of alienation, not only between the government and the people, but also between different social strata. In regard to this blatant discrepancy between ming and shi Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, argues in the blog post translated below that the government should quit using this outdated and overexploited catchphrase in favor of the more concrete goals of justice and rule of law.
A proposal to dispose of the catchphrase “harmonious society”
To the Central Government:
I hereby propose to let go of the catchphrase “harmonious society”. In 2004 the central government, reacting to the increasing amount of social conflicts brought about by rapid economic growth, first suggested to build a “harmonious society”. This [new policy approach] mirrored popular sentiments and thus gained extensive public support. But things have changed since. Not only has the Chinese society not become any safer because of this new political doctrine, instead right the opposite happened! Social conflicts have continued to intensify and nowadays the idea of a “harmonious society” [rings hollow, having been] reduced to nothing more than a bad joke. On the internet a war is raging between grass-mud-horses and river crabs: The expression “river crabs”, a stand-in for the term “harmonious society”, has actually become a symbol for the powers of evil in the minds of Chinese netizens. Therefore the government needs to reflect on the situation and move forward with the times. It should address its mistakes and do away with the catchphrase “harmonious society”. Instead they should start talking about a “just society” or a “fair society” in order to make it happen, to restore justice and to regain the support of the people. Better still, they could directly choose to speak in the common language of the civilized world and talk about a “society build on rule of law”, a “civil society” or a “democratic society”.
The underlying reason for the failure of the so-called harmonious society is that “harmony” was made the first and foremost priority, resulting in the belief that “stability overrides everything else”. And while the words may differ, the outcome was the same: Justice and fairness were sacrificed for the sake of temporary stability and the appearance of harmony. As a result our society has become less and less harmonious and it seems ever less likely that stability can be maintained in the long run.
Justice is the most important value of a modern nation. And only if we can create a just and fair society, we can also build a harmonious one and thus guarantee long lasting stability. Only if we establish modern state institutions and a modern political system, granting the people the right to express themselves and the right to vote as well as handing them administrative power and the authority to supervise, only then can we avoid another “dynastic” overturn accompanied by social upheavals and realize long lasting peace and stability. But currently things are developing into the opposite direction: In some places the term “harmonious society” serves as a mere illusion of peace and tranquility to hide a reality characterized by injustice, violent oppression and a disregard for principles. It has become a pretext for safeguarding vested interests, a rhetorical fig leaf for preserving a status quo that has lost its legitimacy.
Overall the doctrine of a “harmonious society” has turned right into wrong and wrong into right and distorted societal values. Justice and rule of law are on the retreat and political reform has ground to a halt. In the name of “harmony” local governments suppress petitioners and citizens who have been wronged. They disregard the law by practices like settling outside of the courts, avoiding official investigations, buying imprisonment and making back-door deals. In the name of “harmony” all demands for political reform are indiscriminately put down. In the name of “harmony” a blind eye is turned to malpractices in the economic sphere like the disregard for property rights that is evident in the unlawful confiscation of land and demolition of homes, illegal home searches and confiscation of personal possessions as well as the plunder of personal assets. The same is true in regard to state monopolies and the way the state is pushing the private sector back, leading also to a continuous worsening of the economic and business environment.
The doctrine of the “harmonious society” has effectively led to an intensification of social conflicts, therefore I hereby propose to either abandon or adjust this political slogan in order to speed up the realization of a just society build on the rule of law.
As the statesman and philosopher Guan Zhong ((It should be noted that the authorship of the Guanzi, the compilation of books ascribed to Guan Zhong, is still debated and it is unclear how much of Guan Zhongs actual ideas and views are represented in these writings.)) purportedly pointed out even a couple of centuries earlier than the world’s favorite old sage: “If perverted names are employed, things will naturally be in a state of collapse.” How profoundly the wrong use of words can influence reality is evident in the harsh societal impact the once idealistic term “harmonious society” had, when, instead of serving as a goal to aspire to, it was turned into an imperative and spawned its ideological counterpart “stability above all”. In the process the words lost their meaning and even started to invoke the opposite.
The government reaction to this apparent disconnect between political doctrine and political reality has pretty much been to shout or sing louder and plaster walls and newspapers with more slogans. But despite the increased propaganda efforts in the run-up to the 90th birthday of the CPC, less and less people trust in what they read or hear through official channels. The willingness to believe about any rumor and distrust anything presented as truth ((Also check out the great post on ESWN, although a bit of scrolling is needed to get to post  The Rumor Debate.)) , also visible in the controversy surrounding the recent train accident, is ample proof that “the words don’t ring true anymore”. All this is a sign that the whitewashed information offered in state media and the official ideology with its pompous slogans have lost their function as a glue binding together all of society, instead leading to further conflict and disintegrating.
Can this destructive tendency be reversed? Hu Xingdou makes a valid point when he argues that goals should be redefined and most of all clarified in order to avoid that political doctrines—no matter how well intended—can be twisted beyond recognition. (An observation that could be similarly applied to the Chinese law as here, too, it is linguistic ambiguity that leaves the door wide open for abuse.) Maybe the Chinese government should take advice from old Guan who said: “The enlightened ruler makes his body tranquil and waits. When things come about, he names them.” Because “if correct names are employed, things will naturally be in good order.” ((Interestingly though it also is in the Guanzi that, in an ironic twist of history, “harmony” is used to describe the ideal relations between the people and the government and within a society, thus laying the foundation for what today has become the havoc-wrecking political doctrine of a “harmonious society”…))
While that might be a bit to optimistic, here’s hoping for an end of the “river crab” infestation…