Picture of the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP’s Sixteenth Central Committee, on the occasion of its Sixth Plenum in 2006 (source: Xinhua)
你发财, 我发展. I saw those words printed on a large red banner, from the window of a train, in early 2013. We were passing through the countryside of Hunan, Mao Zedong’s province of birth. Banners of this type, serving to disseminate official propaganda, are ubiquitous throughout the PRC. But that one struck me in particular. The message reads: “You become rich, I develop”.
The “I” is ostensibly the common villager who sees the banner every day from her house, or her field. The villager is “developing”, but the syntax makes it obvious that she is not “becoming rich”. Only “you” is becoming rich. Who is “you”? “You” is most likely a village official, or a village capitalist—these categories usually overlap anyway. “You” is not targeted by the local propagandists, “I” is. “You” has no time to read red banners. The syntax implies, in addition, a cause-effect relationship: “I,” the village commoner, is developing because “you,” the village big fish, is becoming rich. The potency of an official pronouncement is often in inverse proportion to its length, and this one does not specify what developing without becoming rich exactly entails. It is easy enough to surmise, that “I” will develop in so far as “you”’s newly acquired wealth indirectly produces opportunity or material gain for others in the village. All boats will be lifted somewhat, with the proviso that “you”’s boat will remain above the rest. Wealth, in other words, will trickle down. The CCP meets Reaganomics.
The lessons of “you become rich, I develop” extend further than a Hunanese village. That banner, and similar ones strewn across the country, are related to a broader ideological thrust on the part of the Chinese regime, namely the mass production and diffusion of “harmonistic” social discourse. The ideology of harmony, or “harmonism,” seeks to stress the concordance or coherence of positions, interests and aspirations across society. Conversely, it denies, minimizes or eschews altogether existing tensions and conflicts in economic, political, and cultural realms. At first glance, harmonism offers a perfect antithesis of Mao Zedong’s well-known insistence on “contradictions” 矛盾 and on their persistence under socialism.
As a political mantra, the Chinese term for harmony, 和谐, is mainly associated with Hu Jintao, general secretary of the CCP from 2002 to 2012 and so-called “core of the fourth generation” of the central leadership. Hu turned the slogan of “harmonious socialist society” 社会主义和谐社会 into a keynote of state propaganda during his tenure in power. Chinese harmonism qua type of discourse, however, encompasses much more than the word itself. This short piece will attempt to dissect and critique Chinese harmonism in the early twenty-first century. It will be argued that there are structural reasons prodding the regime into resorting to harmonistic discourse, whether or not the term “harmony” makes an appearance. Indeed harmonism is alive and well today under China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, even as the “harmonious socialist society” slogan recedes in the background.
Harmonism is an ideological trope typically brandished by ruling strata in the face of existing or potential threats to their privileges. To cite but two examples, the British bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century, as well as the Soviet nomenklatura under Nikita Khrushchev, had their harmonistic moments. Notwithstanding 和谐’s unique lineage in ancient Chinese philosophy, then, there is nothing singularly Chinese about the ideology of harmony. Far from being a cultural idiosyncrasy, harmonism should be understood as a discursive response to processes of social differentiation induced by China’s capitalist transition.
Harmony under Hu
Picture of the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP’s Sixteenth Central Committee, on the occasion of its Sixth Plenum in 2006 (source: Xinhua)
The two-year period between 2002 and 2004 saw a carefully choreographed interregnum in Chinese politics. Jiang Zemin, “core of the third generation,” retired in succession from his positions as CCP secretary general, president of the PRC, and president of the CCP Military Commission, to be replaced, in each instance, by Hu Jintao. Jiang’s theoretical legacy to Chinese socialism was his notion of the “Three Represents” 三个代表, duly enshrined in the CCP charter in 2002 and in the PRC constitution in 2003. As early as the CCP’s Sixteenth Party Congress in 2002, however, Hu’s own contribution to the official ideological edifice could be spotted in the congress resolution, which featured for the first time the term “harmony.” In 2005, Hu graced the concept of “harmonious socialist society” with a long speech, which in turn became a compulsory reading and object of study for party members. Harmony’s high point was reached a year later, on the occasion of the Sixth Plenum of CCP’s Sixteenth Central Committee, which adopted a resolution “on major issues regarding the building of a harmonious socialist society.” The plenum resolution, as translated into English by the official Xinhua News Agency, stated that “the plenum unanimously agreed that social harmony is the intrinsic nature of the socialism with Chinese characteristics and an important guarantee of the country’s prosperity, the nation’s rejuvenation and the people’s happiness.” It added that “the plenum believed that currently the Chinese society is harmonious in general.” It came as no surprise when, in 2007, the CCP charter was amended to include several mentions of “harmony.”
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the “harmonious society” slogan was made an integral part of the Chinese landscape, both intellectual and physical. Countless academic papers and symposia—and research grant applications—purported to address social harmony. Party branches throughout the country, whether in administrations, businesses or schools, organized study sessions on the topic. Journalists were also instructed to take heed of the new mantra, and editorialized liberally on harmony’s importance to society. Meanwhile, red-colored billboards and banners sporting the phrases “harmonious society” 和谐社会, “harmonious city” 和谐城市, “harmonious community” 和谐社区, and so on, cropped up across the land.
Western commentators have often been tempted to read into Hu’s “harmony” a Confucian turn on the part of the Chinese leadership. This is mostly misleading. Admittedly, the CCP elite found some rhetorical advantage vis-à-vis the population in striking the chord of “timeless Chinese wisdom” by foregrounding a notion that has its own history in home-grown ancient philosophy. Yet this association, if it was intended, was left chiefly implicit. Any actual Confucian—and Daoist—lineage was actively denied by official outlets in the wake of the Sixth Plenum meeting. The CCP’s official ideology is founded upon Marxism-Leninism, the study of which Hu Jintao did much to promote during his tenure in power. In official pronouncements by central-level leaders, the phrase “harmonious society” itself was never abstracted from the “socialist” epithet preceding it. On 19 October 2006, Xinhua News Agency went so far to assert that “a series of important expositions of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on socialist society profoundly point to the fact that only a harmonious society is true socialism.”As will be argued just below, the identification of harmonism with “important expositions of Marx, Engels, and Lenin” is, substantially, a travesty of the Marxist approach. At the rhetorical level, however, it was socialism, not Confucianism, which provided the discursive coating for the leadership’s coming-out in favor of “harmony.”
By the late Hu era, the word had predictably become an object of ridicule for many Chinese, especially the young. Because the Chinese pronunciation for “river crab” 河蟹 resembles that of “harmony” 和谐, the former was often made to substitute for the latter in internet forums and micro-blogging platforms such as Sina Weibo. When, in late 2009, lecturing on the European Union in Shanghai, I broached the issue of judicial harmonization among EU members, there were giggles in the classroom. The verb “to harmonize” in Chinese is actually a recent online neologism, meaning “to censure.” Its passive form, “to be harmonized” 被和谐, is now a common way to refer to the suppression of politically sensitive online content.
The fallacy of harmony
The ideology of harmony is hardly culturally bound. Rather, it is a common discursive trope for defenders of the status quo in all manner of geographical and historical settings. By positing the reality or desirability of harmonious relations within society, the advocates of harmony deny the political relevance of extant social contradictions. To weigh in favor of harmony is to weigh in favor of social order, and to wish away social conflict.
The ubiquity of harmonism as the ideology of acquired advantage is well captured by the following passage from the British historian E. H. Carr:
The doctrine of the harmony of interests […] is the natural assumption of a prosperous and privileged class, whose members have a dominant voice in the community and are therefore naturally prone to identify its interest with their own. In virtue of this identification, any assailant of the interests of the dominant group is made to incur the odium of assailing the alleged common interest of the whole community, and is told that in making this assault he is attacking his own higher interests. The doctrine of the harmony of interests thus serves as an ingenious moral device invoked, in perfect sincerity, by privileged groups in order to justify and maintain their dominant position.
The “doctrine of the harmony of interests” Carr is referring to is not Hu Jintao’s “harmonious socialist society”, but the tenets of laissez-faire that formed the common sense of the British upper strata in the nineteenth century. Adam Smith’s famous elaboration on the “invisible hand” is, according to Carr, the classical formulation of the doctrine of the harmony of interests, as it posits the innate concordance of individual and collective pursuits. Carr, whose personal politics were socialist, depicts the ways in which British liberal statesmen in the nineteenth century invoked the ideology of harmony when confronted with either trade protectionism on the international stage, or capital-labor strife at home. Remarking that “laissez-faire, in international relations as in those between capital and labor, is the paradise of the economically strong,”Carr goes on to note that the crises and upheavals of the interwar period did much to discredit the doctrine of the harmony of interests in British eyes, so that it was eventually widely recognized as being “a cloak for the vested interests of the privileged.”
With the possible exception of the “perfect sincerity” of privileged groups mentioned by Carr, the applicability of his insights to the current Chinese configuration is striking. By flatly stating that “Chinese society is harmonious in general,” the CCP Central Committee is indeed, in Carr’s words, ensuring that “any assailant of the interests of the dominant group is made to incur the odium of assailing the alleged common interest of the whole community.” A prosaic translation of the CCP’s harmonistic stance would be that “we are all in the same boat,” from the political elite and the nouveaux riches down to the expropriated peasants and to the manual workers made redundant in the course of public sector restructuring. And anyone attempting to mount a systemic attack—whether by word or by deed—on the Chinese social order will be readily accused of “rocking the boat.”
Specifically, Chinese harmonism can be said to obfuscate societal contradictions at both base-structural and super-structural levels. Indeed, after over three decades of “Reform and Opening” 改革开放, relations of production in the PRC are in the main capitalist in nature, yet the regime has to this day relentlessly affirmed the “socialist” character of Chinese economy and society. This is explicit in Hu’s very slogan of the “harmonious socialist society,” as well as in countless assertions featuring the overworn phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The official denial of the very existence of capitalism in the PRC, quaint as it may appear to outside eyes, is in fact a linchpin of current Chinese state discourse. It is precisely the notion that the country has already put into practice “socialism”—though not yet, of course, “communism”—that, in the end, enables the leadership, the party schools and the state media to square the circle of would-be Marxist rectitude and ideological harmonism. The logical corollary of the mode of production’s “socialist” character in China is that society is immune to the type of class struggle that Marxism-Leninism holds to be a defining feature of capitalism. Without such an assumption, the CCP Central Committee would not be in a position to declare that “Chinese society is harmonious in general.”
Members of an “anti-drug volunteer team” of the Beijing Communist Youth League, singing in front of a sign reading “Harmonious Society” and “Living in the Sunshine” (source: www.bjyouth.gov.cn)
Hu’s “harmony” sound bite was thus premised on another, even more glaring mystification pertaining to the very nature of the mode of production. The phrase “harmonious socialist society” is devised so that the first term preconditions the second. The explicit call for “harmony” merely adds a layer of falsification on top of the denial of capitalist class struggle. In turn, that denial is itself a centerpiece of harmonistic ideology in the PRC. To imply that the country is harmonious because it has advanced on the path of socialist construction to the point of overcoming class struggle, is a remarkable ideological sleight of hand. Marxism per se is not being discarded by the Chinese regime. Instead, it is carefully abstracted from historical reality, reduced into a handful of formulaic tenets, and then safely instrumentalized to vindicate the superiority of Chinese “socialism” over the rest of the world’s “capitalism.” Correspondingly, any systemic alternative to actually existing production relations in the PRC is meant to be blocked from view. Socialism might well be construed as an alternative to capitalism in most parts of the world, whether a desired or a dreaded one. In the PRC, however, this elemental opposition is muddled by the torrent of “socialist” rhetoric flowing from CCP mouthpieces.
Chinese harmonistic discourse does not merely serve to put a veil on the nation’s capitalist base-structure. It is also deployed in order to mask ways in which social contradictions are either generated or heightened at the super-structural level, through the workings of socio-political institutions. A peculiar feature of China’s capitalist transition is that myriad social arrangements, often inherited from Mao’s era, have become, in the midst of radically altered production relations, factors exacerbating the social differentiation attendant on capitalization. Among these one may mention the infamous “hukou” 户口 or “huji” 户籍 system, established in 1958 in the context of the Great Leap Forward, which allocates different social rights depending on whether one hails from an urban-registered or a rural-registered household. The hukou system accentuates and entrenches urban-rural inequality over and beyond the dynamics of market-induced urbanization. Other major super-structural contradictions include the contrast between state and non-state production units (to the advantage of individuals attached to the former), as well as “guanxi”-related inequality, especially in so far as it connects to uneven access to political capital. Such processes, and many more, compound the structural inequities of market capitalism and contribute to producing a deeply fractured society. The official rallying cry for “harmony,” in this context, should be seen as the attempt to obfuscate objective social ills through propagandistic means.
Chinese harmonism parades Marxist parlance while aiming to pre-empt any genuine Marxist critique of Chinese developments. As such, it is at once a betrayal and a travesty of the Marxist approach. Even more strikingly, it is a singular departure from Mao Zedong’s own thinking, which largely revolved around the concept of “contradiction” 矛盾. Officially, the Chinese regime has no more disowned Mao’s teaching than it has disowned Marxism-Leninism, and “Mao Zedong Thought” 毛泽东思想 is hailed in the preamble of the PRC constitution as “guiding” 指引the Chinese people. Politically and intellectually, however, Mao was no harmonist. In his classic work On contradiction, he maintained that “to deny contradiction is to deny everything. This is a universal truth for all times and all countries, which admits of no exception.” After the revolution, he spared no effort in telling off those communists who were tempted to deny or minimize social conflict in “New China.” Famously, he was convinced that class struggle continued to be waged even after the establishment of socialist production relations, if through means different than under capitalism.
Mao, therefore, could not forgive Khrushchev for declaring class struggle over in the USSR, and for maintaining that the Soviet state had become “the state of the whole people”—rather than the instrument of proletarian dictatorship—on the occasion of the Twenty-second CPSU Congress in 1961. Khrushchev, seeking enhanced legitimacy for the Soviet regime in the wake of his denunciation of Stalinism, was embracing a harmonistic turn of phrase. This, for Mao, ran against the very core of Marxism-Leninism, hence the virulent Chinese accusation of “revisionism” against Soviet Russia in the 1960s. The irony is not to be missed in the fact that Mao’s successors have far outstripped Khrushchev in their own zealous embrace of harmonism.
A bitter kernel of truth
The hypocrisy and mendacity of harmonism are not in doubt. “Harmony” under capitalist circumstances, if taken at face value, is a sham. I would like to suggest, however, that this notion expresses, in alienated form, a bitter truth about social relations. It is possible to quote again from E. H. Carr’s critique of the “doctrine of the harmony of interests”:
The supremacy within the community of the privileged group may be, and often is, so overwhelming that there is, in fact, a sense in which its interests are those of the community, since its well-being necessarily carries with it some measure of well-being for other members of the community, and its collapse would entail the collapse of the community as a whole. In so far, therefore, as the alleged natural harmony of interests has any reality, it is created by the overwhelming power of the privileged group […]
The contention that the wellbeing of the privileged group implies “some measure” of wellbeing for the non-privileged is by no means a vindication on Carr’s part of social order or social hierarchy. It is fully compatible with the Marxian insight that, when the capitalist mode of production is dominant, the proletarian worker is dependent on capitalist exploitation for her very livelihood. The ratio of her subsistence wage to the value derived from her labor by the capitalist exploiter provides the “measure” by which her wellbeing is ensured by the production system: “some,” but not much. At any rate, prior to the historical supersession of capitalism, exploitation is preferable to non-exploitation from the standpoint of the propertyless. The wellbeing of the unemployed worker who has fallen into the “industrial reserve army” is not served at all by capital, and her fate is worse still than that of the exploited proletarian. Until a systemic alternative is in sight, the painful irony of capital is that its victims desperately need it, and in fact they live by it.
Can this structural dependence of the exploited on the exploiters be characterized as “harmony”? Surely not. Only the ideological guardians of the status quo will dare to call it by that name. The issue, however, is not merely semantic, or ideological. The critique of harmonism will not do away with the fact of structural dependence. The exploited worker receives only a fraction of the fruits of her labor, and because it is a fraction only, there is a conflict of interest between the exploited and the exploiter. Yet because it is a fraction, as opposed to nothing, there is also a sense in which—residually, and in the short run—the interests of the exploited are being served by the exploiter. The ideology of harmonism, in turn, emanates from that very fact, distorting it in the process. One is tempted to recall Tacitus’s apocryphal aphorism: “this state of wretched servitude, they call it peace.” Similarly, it can be said of the CCP leadership, as indeed of any capitalist harmonist: “this state of capitalist dependence, they call it harmony.”
The bitter kernel of truth in harmonism is, then, that the victims of an unequal social order often survive by way of that very order. There is a negative, perverse kind of solidarity binding the exploited to their exploiters. This is mostly true, however, in the short term, for in the long run the exploited may assemble and struggle for systemic change. Yet even in the case that their struggle succeeds, a “valley of death” will usually have to be traversed before a better society, erected on the ruins of the old, is reached. It is a commonplace that revolutionary situations generate capitalist crises as much as they are caused by them. In the face of an imminent threat to their privileges, propertied classes will close shop, engage in sabotage, or simply abscond with their wealth, undermining workers’ livelihoods. The structural dependence that grips the body social under capitalism can only be cast off after the advent of the new society; in the meantime its iron law will weigh on the most disadvantaged.
Harmonists for a given social order are as eager to remind common people that they live by that order as they are to preclude any intimation of a possible alternative. At the village level, “you become rich, I develop”: “I” had better be grateful to “you” for becoming rich, as if were it not for “you,” “I” would be left to wallow in the mire of underdevelopment. Whether “I” might become rich too if “you” were a little less so is decidedly off the agenda. At the country level, the propaganda campaign for a “harmonious socialist society” reminds the whole Chinese nation that it lives by the CCP. Whether a higher degree of “harmony” might be attained under a different political order is not contemplated. Finally, at the level of the mode of production, capitalist apologists will always remind laborers that it is private enterprise that gives them employment. Whether work might be more meaningful and more rewarding under a different productive system is not a topic acceptable for conversation.
Harmonism under Xi
At the Eighteenth CCP Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao stepped down from his positions as party secretary and president of the party’s Military Commission, to be replaced by a new Chinese strongman, Xi Jinping. In March the following year, Xi also took over as president of the People’s Republic, completing the swiftest power transition of the reform era. As Hu recedes in the background of Chinese politics, so does the leitmotif of the “harmonious socialist society.” The red billboards and banners urging harmony on the passerby have been dismounted and replaced by white posters celebrating the “Chinese Dream” 中国梦, Xi’s pet slogan and a solid candidate for inclusion in the CCP charter at the next party congress. Yet “harmony” has not entirely disappeared from view. Next to where I live in Shanghai, a new giant red billboard lists the twelve “core values of socialism” 社会主义核心价值, and “harmony” 和谐 is one of them.
Furthermore, the “Chinese Dream” is by no means a departure from harmonism qua state ideology. If anything, it hammers home even more forcefully the idea that “we are all in the same boat.” Xi’s “Chinese Dream” eschews social tensions and contradictions, not to mention class struggle, very much as Hu’s “harmonious socialist society” did. The “Chinese Dream,” as opposed to its American counterpart, is not a liberal fairy tale of universally shared individual success. Instead, it calls on all members of the Chinese public to identify with a project of national ascendancy which, in turn, is carried out and embodied by the party-state. Compared to the slogans and campaigns of the Hu era, the “Chinese Dream,” together with the flurry of official discourse that accompanies it, appears to signal a new assertiveness of the country on the international stage. Xi’s own speeches elicit a nationalistic streak that was more subdued—though not absent—in the pronouncements of his predecessors.
Such contrasts, however, are a matter of inflection rather than substance. The main thrust of Chinese propaganda has not changed, and Chinese harmonism is thriving under Xi as it did under Hu. Social contradictions are denied and trivialized by the regime. Systemic critiques are beyond the pale of inclusion in the public sphere, and are consequently made invisible if not forcefully silenced. China remains, officially, a “socialist” society, effectively forbidding the many homegrown scholars schooled in Marxism to address their country’s social ills through the lens of Marxist analyses of capitalism. In the face of the inescapable disharmony of capitalist social relations, harmonism remains the ideological order of the day in the PRC.
 It is commonplace to speak of “generations” of leaders in Chinese politics. Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping constitute, respectively, the “core” 核心 of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth generation.
 The doctrine of the “Three Represents” holds that the CCP “has always represented the development trend of advanced productive forces, the orientation of advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China.” See Xinhua, “The ‘Three Represents’ theory’, 25 October 2001.
 See Alice L. Miller, “Hu Jintao and the Sixth Plenum”, China Leadership Monitor, 2006.
Xinhua, “Communiqué of the Sixth Plenum of the 16th CPC Central Committee”, 12 October 2006.
 That the party elite is now embracing traditional Confucian values is a common stereotype in the Western media. Within academia, an obstinate proponent of this view is Daniel A. Bell, self-styled “Confucian philosopher and scholar” at Tsinghua University in Beijing. See, e.g., his China’s new Confucianism: Politics and everyday life in a changing society, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2008.
 For instance, a new Academy of Marxism was launched within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2005, with much media coverage. See Heike Holbig, “Remaking the CCP’s ideology: Determinants, progress, and limits under Hu Jintao,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 2009.
 Quoted in Miller, “Hu Jintao and the Sixth Plenum.”
 Edward Hallett Carr, The twenty years’ crisis, 1939, Palgrave, New York, 2001 . See in particular Chapter 4, “The harmony of interests.”
 “Guanxi” 关系, meaning literally “relation,” is one of those few Chinese words currently sifting into the English language. One of its more specific meanings is “social connection,” especially to individuals wielding economic or political power. A Chinese youth with stellar educational qualifications but no “guanxi” will typically fall behind her better-connected peers when she enters the labor market.
 Mao Zedong, On contradiction, 1937. Available online at www.marxists.org.
 “Miserrimam servitutem pacem appellant” is mistakenly attributed to Tacitus by Rousseau in his Discourse on inequality. Tacitus’s actual assertion, in hisAgricola, is: “Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (translatable as “they plunder, they slaughter and they steal, and they falsely name this empire; and where they make desolation, they call it peace”).
 The other eleven “core values of socialism” are “wealth and power” 富强, “democracy” 民主, “civilization” 文明, “liberty” 自由, “equality” 平等, “justice” 公正, “rule of law” 法治, “patriotism” 爱国, “dedication” 敬业, “honesty” 诚信 and “amity” 友善.
 These included, in addition to the “harmonious socialist society”, the “concept of scientific development” 科学发展观, the “eight honors and eight shames” 八荣八耻, and in international relations, the notions of “harmonious world” 和谐世界 and of China’s “peaceful rise” 和平崛起 and “peaceful development” 和平发展.