Hu Xingdou: No More “Harmonious Society”

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Beijing Institute of Technology, argues in the blog post translated below that the government should quit using this outdated and overexploited catchphrase in favor of the more concrete goals of justice and rule of law.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”

Hu Xingdou

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 [003] 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…

0 thoughts on “Hu Xingdou: No More “Harmonious Society””

  1. Looks like Mr (or Ms) Drinhausen doesn’t know what is the meaning of harmonious society. Go to wikipedia and it is “is a socio-economic vision that is said to be the ultimate end result of Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s signature ideology of the Scientific Development Concept. It serves as the ultimate goal for the ruling Communist Party of China along with Xiaokang society, which aims for a “basically well-off” middle-class oriented society.”


  2. To Pugster,

    how do you not fall down more? Drinhausen is not primarily critiquing “harmonious society” for the joke that it is; rather, he/she is providing the translation of Hu’s writing, as well as some commentary. It is Hu who is providing the direct criticism of that useless phrase. For example, it is Hu who thinks that “Justice and fairness were sacrificed for the sake of temporary stability and the appearance of harmony.”

    It is quite funny that you would take Wikipedia as the final word. Be that as it may, again, read for Pete’s sake. “harmonious society” may be the stated ultimate goal of the CCP (assuming of course that you believe them), but the whole point of the translation and the post is that harmony is no longer the result, but merely the excuse used to suppress the people.

    Is harmonious society a laudable goal? Sure. But you put the mechanisms in place (like rule of law) in order to foster a society that exists in harmony. Instead, the CCP chooses to enforce harmony in order to create the illusion of a harmonious society. You, and the CCP, once again have it ass-backwards. Enforced harmony is not harmony at all. That’s probably beyond your level of comprehension.


  3. Hu Xingdou is flogging a dead horse here – a horse that was never alive in the first place. Meaning is governed not by its direct relations to a given thing in itself, but signifiers find meaning contextually within language – no word or set of words is eternally “fixed” to a particular meaning in reality. Funnily enough he points it out himself when he says that the term has “lost its meaning” – it may have lost its initial meaning but in the process it has found a new one – the opposite. But that’s the only point that he’s correct, I have a very very hard time swallowing the idea that the conceptualizing of a “harmonious society” has magically inverted morality. What he’s talking about is a symptom that describes the problem but not an actual cause. The problem is systemic, not linguistic.

    When a situation “flips” or is completely at odds with its classification, it becomes ironic. I really don’t buy that this irony is lost on Chinese, and if it is lost on Chinese then that’s due to a range of other issues (blind nationalism, misinformation, etc.)

    “Instead they should start talking about a “just society” or a “fair society” in order to make it happen”

    I think this is another absurd statement and not only that but its at odds with the rest of his article (if talking about a “harmonious” society didn’t work why does he think other catch phrases will work?). I mean seriously, does he think that a CCP official would publicly say, “Hi, yeah we’re aiming for harmony, but we haven’t started a publicity campaign using the words justice and fairness so that’s not really on the agenda”. Additionally, the CCP DOES use regularly use the words “Civil Society” (can you go anywhere in Beijing without seeing a giant banner flaunting the locality’s civility?) and democracy (go any museum to find them use the word democracy obsessively). Once again the problem is systemic, not linguistic. That’s not to say language CAN’T have an important impact on some things, but in this case its certainly not the core issue – the core issue is government mentality, values, priorities and so on.

    “Existence precedes essence”, no? Problems like this get solved by action, not the shifting of institutionally external semantics.


  4. Looks like Mr (or Ms) Drinhausen doesn’t know what is the meaning of harmonious. it’s actually a thing written on trains here. with that in mind, try rereading his essay- you’ll find that it’s basically incomprehensible. is he on drugs? do we want to read essays written by someone on drugs? don’t read his essays.


  5. @brightgrey

    I don’t think Hu is arguing that “the idea that the conceptualizing of a ‘harmonious society’ has magically inverted morality” as you say. In fact, Hu’s essay doesn’t even deal with that philosophical issue. Rather it’s Drinhausen’s interesting if not entirely relevant comments that mention that particular philosophical conundrum.

    Based on the translation provided here, Hu is saying that the phrase “harmonious society” rings hollow to many Chinese today, simply because it lacks the reality to back it up. On the contrary, the principle of the “harmonious society” is used to justify any number of abuses – and in fact the phrase itself has come to have an almost sinister meaning to many Chinese.

    Instead, Hu proposes a “just” or “fair” society – one not characterized with mere empty rhetoric, but with the actual institutions common to the civilized world (such as the rule of law) that would indeed make China a truly just society.

    I must say, I find Hu’s comments eminently reasonable.


  6. @Martel

    You: “I don’t think Hu is arguing that “the idea that the conceptualizing of a ‘harmonious society’ has magically inverted morality” as you say. In fact, Hu’s essay doesn’t even deal with that philosophical issue.”

    Him:”Overall the doctrine of a “harmonious society” has turned right into wrong and wrong into right and distorted societal values.”

    Besides that, I don’t feel like repeating myself. The essay is a psychedelic foot-shooting confusion of content and appearance.


  7. @brightgrey

    lol, that single sentence is hardly proof that he’s arguing “the idea that the conceptualizing of a ‘harmonious society’ has magically inverted morality”. He gives specific examples of how that phrase has been used to pervert justice.

    Now if you don’t feel like repeating yourself that is just as well, because your time could be better spent re-reading what Hu actually wrote, rather than arguing some misinterpretation of what you believe he said.


  8. “magically inverted morality” seems to be brightgrey’s phrase. It may be appropriate as a literal paraphrasing of “right into wrong and wrong into right”. However, it seems to be taken out of the context of the entirety of Hu’s article. In its entirety, Hu’s article seems to flesh out his contention of how the CCP catchphrase makes right into wrong and wrong into right. I think he is objecting to the phrase as an end that justifies the means. I think he would rather see Chinese society adopt the means that would naturally result in a harmonious society. I think he yearns for the concept, but despises the catchphrase.


  9. “Meaning is governed not by its direct relations to a given thing in itself, but signifiers find meaning contextually within language – no word or set of words is eternally “fixed” to a particular meaning in reality”.

    The basis of all modern (Saussurian) linguistic theory, and Mandarin is not exempt to this universal rule.


  10. @Martel

    They could change their name to the Cooky Codpiece Party, and constantly use the phrase “Lets make a harmonium using society!” – it makes no difference what the semantics of the campaign are unless the system ITSELF changes. The focus of the piece was on the disparity between the catch phrase and the “reality” of party rule, yet paradoxically he somehow believes that by changing the catch phrase to something else morality will be restored (quote: “Instead they should start talking about a “just society” or a “fair society” in order to make it happen”). The article SHOULD have been on how to change government culture and more effective policy implementation, instead he was sidetracked into a flawed loop of logic – nouns are not things, verbs are not actions. The naming of an action or policy as being one thing or another may make that path of action easier for a third party (or self deceptive first party) to swallow, but it doesn’t divert its essential function.

    @ S.K. Cheung

    lol, I YEARN.

    Not quite. What I’m saying is that the name bears no relation to either the ends or the means – the name of the project is arbitrary. I am simplifying slightly here – of course the term harmony has strong pre-existing positive connotations in Chinese culture that certainly the govt. took conscious advantage of (Confucius, the word has an aura of dependable nationalistic traditionalism etc.) that inflects the aura of the actions, but this is a side issue, its like eating a steak of poisoned pork and talking about the gravy.

    Parallel to this, in the 70s central European academics studying Russia from their side of the iron curtain accurately charted social unrest by spikes in propaganda – if for example there was an increase in violence, there would be an increase in propaganda touting a safe and secure society. All things considered its not surprising that we’re seeing this “harmonious society” bollocks in a time of social unease. The overarching irony of all of this is that if something is self evident then it requires no statement in the first place – “the more we say the further we depart from the truth” as Lacan would say.

    If you want my opinion, a mature society shouldn’t need a title or slogan to their national project at all. They should just responsibly do what is expected transparently and effectively. This is what Hu should have been arguing for.


  11. I think the objection to the term “harmonious” here is the ease with which this term may be abused.

    Yes, CCP officials can (and do) justify imprisonment without charge in the name of “justice”, exclusion of independent candidates from election in the name of “democracy”, and describe the conquest and subjugation of polities as “liberation”. However, with the exception of the description of 1949 as being a “liberation”, you rarely find people recycling this into ordinary speech, mainly because of the obvious meaningless of these phrases when used in this context.

    “Harmony” on the other hand, has become a common usage, with people uncritically accepting criticism of, for example, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as places which are not “harmonious”. “Harmony” describes an end, but (unlike “justice” and “democracy”) not the means by which it is acheived. Indeed, the worst crimes imaginable can be committed but the outcome may still be “harmonious” so long as, after the tanks have rolled and the bullets fired, dissent is no longer apparent.

    My criticism of Hu’s piece would therefore be that “harmonious” has actually retained its meaning – here being simply the outward abscence of disagreement. This can be, and is being, acheived through the silencing of critics, the supression of dissent, and the censoring of communication.

    Like others have pointed out, though, the answer to this is not exchanging one kind of propaganda for another.


  12. Oh, and once again, Putzster has failed to read the piece properly before commenting – nowhere does Drinhausen discuss the actual meaning of the term “harmonious society”. Instead, Drinhausen says only that “harmonious society” used to have a high-flown, idealistic meaning but no longer does.

    Custer, the reason why I support those who want to ban Pug until he learns to read is not because I disagree with his views. It is because he consistently does not read the posts and comments on this forum before responding to what he thinks they say. Were someone doing this on purpose there would be no doubt that they were trolling.


  13. To brightgrey:
    I agree it’s not a catchy new slogan that is needed. My interpretation of the translation is that Hu doesn’t want a catchy new slogan, but actually something of substance. However, there is some ambiguity in his writing at the end of the first paragraph, and in the last paragraph.


  14. brightgrey, I think either A you didn’t understand Hu’s essay (which described the policy the Party should take, not just the slogans), or B you willfully misunderstood because you don’t think that the Party is capable of reform.

    To restate the points made in the article:
    – a “harmonious society” can’t be imposed by fiat without fixing the underlying problems
    – the underlying problems involve corruption (a just society) and unequal opportunity (a fair society)
    – solution to problem is democracy/free press/rule of law etc(the right to express themselves and the right to vote etc…)


  15. @ S.K. Cheung

    There isn’t so much an ambiguity so much as a confusion. I think this is the reason why people see me as misinterpreting the article. On the surface this all seems fairly reasonable, but his argument is based on a tangle of signifiers, signifieds, is and oughts. You mentioned that I should have read the morality inversion line in context, which is fine, but Hu actually changes his stance towards signifier and signified multiple times during the piece without himself realizing it (see how para 2 and 3 are completely at odds with his concluding para 5, how the body of para 1 is about the non-essence of language yet paradoxically the end of para 1 finds a concrete way forward in the shift of rhetoric, etc.)

    Again, my issue is that he doesn’t make the distinction between the title and the content. While he supports a sensible change to a more just and fair society, he makes explicit focus on a changing of slogan as being important if not key to change (note the title of the piece as well as 1st, 4th and final para).

    “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 FOARP said this is just trading one propaganda for another – there shouldn’t be propaganda in the first place. Trading one barely opaque delusion for another isn’t a way forward. I am not sure about what FOARP’s opinion of harmony’s retention of “original” meaning though. It certainly has in some places, and certainly hasn’t in others, but I put this down to context rather than essence. When words are tools its the workmen are to blame for the bad handiwork.

    @ some guy

    Read above. I’m not sure how you wringed option B out of my responses, reform is inevitable.


  16. Actually, I take that back. I do agree with FOARP, I just think the positive inflection on the word has changed to a negative one.


  17. FOARP, if the author mentions nothing about “Harmonious Society,” then why is the title “No More Harmonious Society?” Are you sure that you have read everything?


  18. nowhere does Drinhausen discuss the actual meaning of the term “harmonious society”. Instead, Drinhausen says only that “harmonious society” used to have a high-flown, idealistic meaning but no longer does.

    In other words this guy misinterpret the meaning of “harmonious society,” which is what I said all along.


  19. To da Pug:
    seriously, dude, why is it that you simply cannot read, or cannot comprehend that which you have read?

    This is the title: “Hu Xingdou: No More “Harmonious Society””. Do you have any idea what that means? No? Let me help. It means her article is about Mr. Hu’s opinion that there be no more use of the catchphrase “harmonious society”. She could just as easily have said “Hu Xingdou: No more pointless CCP catchphrases”. Her article is about the use of pointless catchphrases (or at least those that are rendered pointless by the CCP). She is discussing “harmonious society” (in quotes, ie the catchphrase); not harmonious society (NOT in quotes, ie the concept). Her post is about linguistic ambiguity, so there should be no expectation of her discussing the actual concept of harmonious society. You are criticizing her for not discussing something which she never set out to discuss, when it is you who is far too dense to understand the difference.

    Are you really that challenged, or just pretending to be? BTW, while K. Drinhausen could be male or female, you only need to scroll over the name to see that K is for Katja. You are long overdue to become more observant, and to sharpen up your grasp of English comprehension.


  20. To FOARP:
    you and I should set up a virtual ESL program, and invite Pug to be our first student. Mind you, we shouldn’t strive to bring him up to a level of excellence; perhaps mediocrity will suffice so as to minimize his frequent misunderstandings on blogs of various colours.


  21. These whining PKD trolls are complaining the way I read, and the way I think. I write whatever the way I interpret this blog, and not the way how these losers think.

    There’s one thing about being satirical about the term “Harmonious Society” by making mud grass horse, and river crab jokes. There’s another thing about people who decides to be serious about misinterpreting “Harmonious Society” altogether. Some morons who are talking about “you read it wrong mentality” just don’t get it.


  22. OK Pug, find the part in Drinhauser’s writing (and not her translation of Hu) where Drinhauser explains the definition of “harmonious society”, and explain to us how Drinhauser’s interpretation of it is different to the generally accepted one.

    Or shut up.


  23. FOARP,

    Maybe you’re like Drinhauser who’s on drugs. Read my FIRST post. Since when does Drinhauser talk about developing a society with a well off middle class orientated society?


  24. brightgrey, it’s true that Partyspeak, whether it’s “Harmonious society”, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “Four modernizations” or whatever else, is 50% policy and 50% fluff. But if the Party ever embarks on reform, there will also be a cheezy slogan (I suggest “1.3 billion represents”). That’s just the way the Party is. That’s why when Hu Xingdou says let’s change the slogan, what he really means is let’s change the policy.


  25. pug_ster needs to learn the valuable maxim “when you you are stuck in a hole, stop digging.” Like all of pugman’s comment thread troubles, this flows from his never missing an opportunity to miss the point of an article.

    My advice to pug is to start each comment with the humble disclaimer “Perhaps I am failing to understand the author’s intended meaning here, but…”

    This approach might elicit helpful input early on that will stop pug_ster from derailing threads, wasting time and making a fool of himself.


  26. “I write whatever the way I interpret this blog”
    —I sure hope so, Pug-face, cuz I’m counting on you to continue to provide me with regular laughs. I almost look forward to your comments due to their inherent entertainment value. In that regard, you are highly reliable, and seldomly do you disappoint.

    The problem with you and your ilk is that you folks lack the intellectual capacity or the quality of upbringing to simply admit a mistake. Instead, you’d rather scratch and claw in a futile yet comical attempt to salvage your “point”. In that way, you are no different than the HH folks as evidenced by their recent unfortunate misinterpretation of a very funny post by Stan Abrams. Not the first time. And based on the general recalcitrant nature of your type of individual, it won’t be the last. But as I always say, you do what you gotta do.

    But if you want to continue to flaunt your low-rent logic and pre-school reading comprehension, I very much look forward to it.

    Now, if you had any balls, you should answer FOARP’s challenge, rather than running away and ignoring a direct question like you normally do. FOARP asked you to show us where Ms. Drinhausen defines “harmonious society”. Your first pathetic attempt includes you asking a question. How does that answer FOARP’s challenge?

    I’ve often wondered about this. If the CCP wants to gain some traction on English language blogs, wouldn’t it be better off to find someone who could at least offer a coherent and logical argument? That seems to be too much to ask of the pug.


  27. Enough of this talk of banning Pugster. I imagine his reading comprehension would be fine, if he wanted to comprehend. He is just someone who personally benefits from the CCP running China, and therefore makes up ridiculous excuses for them. I’m guessing his dad is a Party official or else rich through Party guanxi.

    It’s not humanly possible to “misread” at least 3 years worth of articles on all English language China related blogs.


  28. Pugster’s incredibly successful attempts at sounding like an idiot aside, it seems most people on this thread would agree that the important thing is not what you call it, but rather to adopt the changes required and to install the mechanisms necessary to result in a society that can actually exist harmoniously.


  29. @ some guy

    They are still two separate things – the mistake of conflating the name of the actions with the actions itself is the fundamental flaw in this essay because its simply a fallacy (see my first paragraph of my first post in this topic). Being preoccupied with the perfume of institutional semantics is just derailing the absolutely critical importance of viewing government action objectively and contextually. This is the main reason why I’m annoyed with this essay, even more so than its large number of irritating internal contradictions (I pointed some out in my last post, but there are certainly plenty more if you look).

    I don’t believe at all that propaganda is a necessary tagalong to change in the PRC. Actually I think this is quite a patronizing idea that Chinese people need propaganda for change (and a system where they have no genuine representation no less!). You may as well say that the Chinese public need to be lied to and the only way the CCP can successfully operate is via deception. A government culture of propagandistic opinion manipulation is one of the key obstacles to genuine reform, regardless of what you think the reforms should be.


  30. Great write-up, I am regular visitor of one’s web site, maintain up the excellent operate, and It’s going to be a regular visitor for a lengthy time. “There is a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go.” by Tennessee Williams.


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