by Peng Chun

Xiaokang, Datong and the dangerous debate over China’s future

For obvious reasons, considering its size and economic strength, China excites great interest and debate throughout the world. People are concerned not only how China integrates itself into the world but also the potential trajectory of its domestic development. It is now almost a cliché to say that China has entered what is called the “fortified zone” or “deep water zone” of reform and uncertainties abound. China’s economy is yet to be placed firmly onto a solid foundation, as admitted by the Premier himself; its political and social cohesiveness and stability is in a precarious state of balance; and by no means less worryingly, its ideological outlook has been muddled by recent attacks against constitutionalism and internet opinion leaders, alongside with the recently well-discussed “Seven Don’t Mentions” and “Public Opinion Struggle”. China has long been a puzzle to the West, and that continues to be the case, perhaps even more so.

Yet many people tend to overlook the fact that the future of China was already pinned down over 30 years ago by Deng Xiaoping, when he first suggested in a conversation with the then Japanese Prime Minister in 1979 – that a Xiaokang Society is the goal and essence of China’s own modernization, as distinct from, say the Japanese path of modernization. The rest is history: the concept has been repeatedly invoked by the party-state, initially as a millennium target and more recently as the benchmark for China’s success by 2020, just before the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party.

Of course, having a target does not mean that the future is assured. In fact, this is precisely the point: whether or not China can march on to become a Xiaokang Society as scheduled is anything but certain. However, as China has been famous for setting up plans and achieving them quite effectively, when looking into the unknown journey, we should not take her self-proclaimed destination lightly. The idea of Xiaokang may sound grand, but in no way is it an empty promise.

For a start, the conventional English translation for Xiaokang – it is usually translated as “well-off” – is largely a misnomer. Although the most notable element of a Chinese Xiaokang Society is the per capita GDP tripling from the 2002 figure of US$3,000 by 2020, it does not mean that it focuses solely and exclusively on becoming “well-off” or “moderately prosperous” in economic or financial terms.

In contrast, since 16th National Congress in 2002, the Party has vowed to build a moderately prosperous society in all respects that features sustained and sound economic development, expanded people’s democracy, improved cultural soft power, higher living standards and more efficient use of resources, combined with environmental friendliness. Yes, the emphasis seems always to be placed on economic success – as evidenced by the most recent aim adopted at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 that total GDP and per capita income of urban and rural residents should both double in 2020 compared with 2010.

However, Xiaokang as a concept is apparently far richer than simply stressing on making ends meet or a mere restatement of “to get rich is glorious”. In fact, a set of indicator systems have been developed at both central and local level to monitor and appraise how far localities and the country as a whole have gone on the way towards Xiaokang. All these systems share the commonality of being comprehensive and holistic to capture multiple aspects of a more desirable society.

Xiaokang can still be criticized (if not mocked) as an ideal that is too all-encompassing and hence ends up being a meaningless catchphrase, something not far away from an utopian aspiration. In an age of anti-meta-narrative, it is unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. However, to the extent that Xiaokang is a legacy from ancient Chinese wisdom that is revived in modern times, we need to put it in perspective. To be clear, Xiaokang is not utopia, not even a very ideal society, especially when compared with Datong.

Both terms come from the Book of Rites (Li Ji), a Confucian classic text written over 2000 years ago and first translated into English by James Legge in 1885. In the chapter called “The Operation of Etiquette” (Li Yun), Confucius himself lays down the outlook of Xiaokang and Datong. He starts with the latter, which in his view is definitively higher and better than the former. To Confucius, a Datong society exists when those with virtue and those with ability are chosen and used.

In this society, people do not treat only their parents like parents, nor only their sons like sons. Sufficient provision was secured for the elderly until their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up for the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently cared for. People disliked seeing resources being dumped on the ground but did not seek to hoard for themselves; they wanted to exert their strength but not merely for their own benefit.

Therefore people don’t engage in intrigue or trickery, nor do they engage in robbery, theft, and rebellion. They leave their houses without closing the doors. This is called Datong. Different English translations have been proposed such as “Great Unity” and “Great Harmony”, but obviously more important is the connotation of this term, which includes three tenets. First is meritocracy that makes sure those virtuous and able are selected for office. Second is social security for people of all ages and those with disadvantages. The third element points to the unselfishness, liberality, generosity and public-spiritedness of everyone.

All these three are pretty remarkable, considering they were realized or at least articulated two millennia ago when there were no such things as equal opportunity, a welfare state or full employment. Yet it is the third characteristic that is truly extraordinary even today: a society based on altruism and solidarity and full of inter-personal caring and sympathy. In Confucius’ words, Datong is where the Great Way is pursued and all is for all.

In contrast, a Xiaokang society is where everyone is for oneself. “Now that the Great Way has fallen into obscurity, everyone sees the world from the perspective of one’s own family”, Confucius sighed, “Everyone loves (above all others) his own parents and cherishes (as) children (only) his own sons. People accumulate resources and exert their strength for their own advantage.” The rules of propriety and of what is right are regarded as disciplines and norms to regulate the inter-personal relationship between kings and subjects, father and son and so on. According to these norms, errors are exhibited, benevolence exemplified and courtesy promoted. Anyone who does not follow this course, even with power and status, will be removed and considered by the public as a scourge. This is Xiaokang.

Apparently, Xiaokang as described by Confucius is very similar to what we would today call a rule-based market society, in which individuals strive for themselves and follow the laws. This is exactly what China intends to achieve when it tries to further improve its market and legal systems in the next decade. Yet it is just part of the package, given the fact that elements of Datong are also incorporated into the blueprint, such as creating social harmony and providing better social security and fairer chances for the people.

Indeed, comparing these two terms in their original meanings, we would immediately overturn the conventional wisdom that Datong is utopian and Xiaokang is more realistic and hence the pragmatic party-state chose the latter. Neither shall we uncritically accept Confucius’ own dictum that Datong is necessarily superior to Xiaokang today. As a matter of fact, to contemporary eyes, Xiaokang and Datong are complementary in the sense that the former stands for the individualistic, rule-based and market-oriented society, whilst the latter represents all the values and protections lost in a brutal and divisive market society and cries for counterbalancing the vices thus created.

This is precisely what the “Liberals versus New Leftists” debate over China’s future is all about. As the mainstream currently, the Liberals have been staunchly arguing for reforms towards less government interference with the market and more legal protection of individual rights, especially private property. The New Leftists, in opposition but on the rise, expose and fiercely criticize the pernicious consequences of China’s market reform so far, such as widened income gap, extreme consumerism and possessive individualism. Ordinarily the Liberals are associated more with universal values recognized in and oftentimes promoted globally by the West and the New Leftists more with local concerns and contexts in contemporary China. But if these two camps must somehow pick their flags from traditional Chinese vocabularies between Xiaokang and Datong, the Liberals are more likely to choose Xiaokang while the New Leftists Datong.

Yet as demonstrated above, these two ideals are neither incompatible nor hierarchical. Unfortunately, however, the debate seems to be too polarized to put them in direct contradiction. First, interlocutors from both sides try to demonize the other group. On the one hand, the Liberals have been criticized as intellectually unsophisticated (or even politically suspicious) for advocating transplantation of western values and institutions onto Chinese soil. On the other, the New Leftists are labeled to be ultra-nationalists, populists, statists or simply reactionaries who want to turn the clock backward for China.

Second, busy pointing fingers at one another, both sides consciously or unconsciously turn a blind eye to problems and potential defects in their own theories. Many Liberals do sometimes have too much faith in the market and privatization and too little in any form of government intervention, just as some New Leftists start with concerns for ordinary people’s well-being and asking for more government action but end up justifying populist or statist policies.

Third and most devastatingly, they ignore or even refuse to acknowledge any common grounds shared with the other side. This means that their debate is increasingly counterproductive and dangerous.

Without question, ideally both camps prefer a China that respects the individual and the community as well as enjoys economic prosperity and social justice at the same time. China faces not a choice of Datong over Xiaokang or the reverse, but a balanced combination of these two. Probably China will never have its cake and eat it too. But counterpoising Xiaokang against Datong makes such a prospect even less likely. Therefore it is unnecessary and undesirable if debate over China’s future is divisive to the same degree as in America, critiqued by the late professor Ronald Dworkin in his book Is Democracy Possible Here?

Take “democracy” as an example – and this is where it is necessary not only to reconcile and fuse Xiaokang and Datong but also to go beyond the two. It has been suggested that democracy – rule by the people – is alien to ancient China and was imported only in modern times. This seems to be the case as neither Xiaokang nor Datong involves people’s rule: the former touches upon removal of the powerful if their behaviour is against the rules of propriety; while the latter alludes to selecting the virtuous and capable for offices. These are positive traits of any society but they cannot possibly be called democracy without stretching the word too far.

Whether or not democracy is needed in China has been debated endlessly. As is always the case, the debate centres on what is entailed by this controversy-laden term. One of the most eminent scholars commonly identified to be in the New Leftist camp, Professor Wang Shaoguang, famously argued against China adopting western electoral democracy and suggested that there are already plenty of democratic elements in China: substantively, Chinese government is very much responsive to the needs of the people, especially those disadvantageous groups; procedurally, China has grassroots rural and urban elections, participation in governmental decision-making as well as the ingenious party invention of mass line.

His substantive democracy as government’s responsiveness to societal concerns in narrowing disparities, guaranteeing minimum income, reducing cost of education and providing better public health insurance is much in line with the idea of Datong, by which he tries to alleviate the evils unleashed by the unscrupulous Xiaokang market society. Recently, arguments in a similar vein were once again popularized by a TED talk by a Shanghai-based Chinese venture capitalist—in his words, if democracy is multi-party elections with universal suffrage, then it is becoming a perpetual cycle of “elect and regret”.

While it is correct and necessary for the New Leftists to point out that electoral democracy is by no means perfect, it is ill-advised for them to simply shove it out of the window as no more than an ideological label or meta-narrative, and even more so to reduce democracy to national competitive elections. As “rule by the people” was absent in traditional Chinese social ideals, the first-order question is whether or not it should be pursued today. Professor Wang’s democracy as responsiveness is less about rule by the people than rule for the people and his procedural democracy, however transparent and participatory it may be, lacks the crucial negative function performed by national competitive elections in other countries—peacefully changing rulers that are considered unsatisfactory by the majority of the people.

Whether such function is worth pursuing by China is debatable, but it should not be disguised or marginalized as being of no importance to the idea of rule by the people. Nevertheless, this is no cause for unreserved celebration of those Liberals who speak for elections. The reason is that absent national elections, there is still a huge room to enhance democratic elements in Chinese society, just as the New Leftists have shown. A simple-minded focus on national competitive election is unduly restricting the reform agenda and reducing the likelihood for any consensus between the two camps. It is high time now for them to overcome the contrast between Xiaokang and Datong, embrace the two together and tries to go further. Failing to do so could make their debate futile at best and dangerous at worst.


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