The “harmonious society,” or hexie shehui (和谐社会), was raised as a strategic goal of the Chinese Communist Party under Hu Jintao in 2004 in order to respond to rising social discontent stemming from the economic and social development of the previous two decades as well as increasing globalization. While the CCP noted at the time that “two decades of reform and opening-up have brought about tangible achievements in China’s economic development,” there was growing concern within the Party about what impact rising inequality and other issues, including environmental destruction, might have on the longer-term health of society and the legitimacy of the regime.
Introduced formally at the Fourth Plenary Session of the Sixteenth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on September 19, 2004, the concept described a hoped-for state of social harmony in which all groups and classes worked together, resolving underlying “contradictions.” The full phrase originally was “socialist harmonious society” (社会主义和谐社会), appearing in this passage from the Party’s “Decision” at the session:
We must insist on the broadest and fullest mobilization of all positive factors, continuously improving our capacity to build a harmonious socialist society, continuously enhancing the creative vitality of the entire society, properly coordinating the interests of various parties, promoting innovation in the social management system, strengthening and improving mass work under the new situation, and maintaining social stability.
An English-language entry on the phrase at China Daily, the newspaper published by the Information Office of the State Council, noted shortly after the introduction of the term:
Our society has many contradictions and uncertain factors in it, such as huge gaps in income, increasingly serious problems facing rural areas, farmers and agriculture, the drainage of farmland, heavy pressure in the workplace and an incomplete social security system.
For a time, as the phrase trended in the official CCP discourse through 2015 and 2016, some analysts believed that “harmonious society” might become enshrined in the CCP’s Charter as Hu Jintao’s banner term – similar to Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents.” In the realm of foreign policy, the phrase was associated for a time also with the notion of a “harmonious world (和谐世界). While the idea of a “harmonious society” did represent efforts at a policy rethink as China entered a “new stage of development,” however, it was ultimately another related Hu Jintao phrase, the “Scientific View of Development” (科学发展观) that was added to the preamble of the CCP Charter alongside “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and the “Three Represents” [also here] to become Hu Jintao’s banner term, the mark of his legacy.
The Cost of “Harmony”
Even as Hu Jintao and the top CCP leadership emphasized the priority of resolving “contradictions” and creating a “harmonious society” from 2004 onward, internet censorship remained a key means of “guiding public opinion” in order maintain the stability of the regime — which seemed to many a contradiction itself given the leadership’s apparent interest in “harmony.” Not long after the introduction of the phrase, it became synonymous online with the act of censorship. To be “harmonized,” bei hexie (被和谐), meant to have one’s posts or comments deleted because they were seen to be unharmonious.
Another related use of online slang was the word “river crab” (河蟹), a homophone of “harmony” in Chinese. To be “river crabbed” (被河蟹) also became synonymous with censorship.