BEIJING (Reuters) - Mao Zedong endlessly exhorted the Chinese to practise class struggle. His present-day successor, President Hu Jintao, aims for much greater social harmony.
Each generation of China’s Communist rulers have defined their leadership with slogans, from catchy to obscure, but in a political system that is closed and opaque, these are more than just catch phrases — they define the goals of the nation.
Within a year of Hu taking power in 2002, the “scientific concept of development” began working its way into official pronouncements and the phrase “harmonious society” popped up on every banner from Beijing to Buddhist Tibet.
With a five-yearly party congress due to open in October that will see Hu consolidate power, analysts say the slogans, designed to set him apart from his rival and predecessor, Jiang Zemin, are likely to be cemented as the guiding doctrine of his rule.
“At this party congress, certainly I think ‘scientific concept of development’ and ‘harmonious society’ will in a way become a new foundation for the next phase of development,” said Xue Lan, a professor of public policy at Tsinghua University.
Jiang’s contribution to the party lexicon was the “Three Represents”, a slogan that, while not exactly catchy, was actually a bold concept that broadened the party’s traditional base of workers and peasants to include private entrepreneurs.
Hu’s slogans have been aimed more at endearing the new leadership to the masses, and mark a shift in emphasis from Jiang’s growth at all costs to a more balanced approach that aims to develop the hinterland as well as the coast and take into account factors such as environmental degradation.
“Hu Jintao has staked more of his legitimacy on the ‘scientific approach to development’,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a China specialist at Boston University.
“At a minimum, it was an effort to separate himself from Jiang. It begs the question: whose concept of development was not scientific?”
But if “harmonious society” is intended to be more accessible to the masses, its meaning is still ambiguous enough that it is open to all manner of popular interpretations.
A straw poll of Beijing residents gave a range of responses.
“Harmonious society is about collective happiness,” said one man, who would only give his surname, He. “It’s to give people a target, a direction toward which to make efforts.”
“It means being civilised and polite,” explained another.
And according to one street vendor, “it’s aimed at making development in all aspects go more smoothly”.
Still, the general idea of a harmonious society speaks to a China beginning to recognise the pitfalls of breakneck economic growth. It also alludes to an obsession with stability in the face of rapid social change that is fuelling unrest.
“What it indicates is a mindset, a set of intentions, and I think that is probably clear to people on the street,” said Rana Mitter, of Oxford University’s Institute for Chinese Studies.
“It’s got a little bit of a Confucian tone about it too — this idea that basically order and stability are what enable people to flourish.”
While they may be open to interpretation, Hu’s slogans are certainly more accessible than the phrase coined by Hua Guofeng, Mao’s appointed successor, during his short-lived tenure before he was prised from power by Deng Xiaoping.
The “Two Whatevers” urged China to uphold whatever policies Mao had adopted and abide by whatever instructions he had given.
It is hardly a wonder that Hua’s remarks were eclipsed by Deng’s famously pragmatic admonition that “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. The slogan epitomised China’s shift from Communist central planning to capitalist-style reforms.
Slogans don’t always go down as intended.
Some local officials misinterpreted a recent campaign to “construct a new socialist countryside” as “new construction in the countryside” and launched an unwarranted building spree.
And while some slogans get lost in translation, others are specifically designed for foreign consumption.
China’s “peaceful rise” morphed into a more benign “peaceful development” under Hu after the leadership became sensitive to fears abroad about its growing diplomatic clout.
Hu is also not immune to the numerically denominated morality campaigns that marked past eras, stamping his imprint on a drive launched last year to combat “eight shames” — which included greed and high-living — and to uphold the “eight glories”, including serving the people, honesty and self-sacrifice.
For some, though, the ceaseless propaganda has no relevance in a system where they are kept far from the halls of power.
“We don’t even think about these slogans,” said a parking attendant surnamed Cai. “They are part of Chinese tradition — it’s as common as saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard