Harmonisation in China: A Window into the Party’s biggest problems

“Harmonisation” joined the pantheon of CCP buzzwords partly as a way to make the pill of the end of class struggle and the cradle-to-grave economic support of state industrial workers go down more easily; yet the idea behind this and similar concepts has turned into a challenge in itself to the Party’s ability to bring meaningful change to the ordinary worker.

One thing that the study of China has brought home to me is just how Herculean the problems of governing so populous a country really are. Where I live, healthcare and education are regulated at the provincial level. In China, they are regulated at the township and village level, because that is the difference in the scale of the population. Harmonisation provides a window into the nature of these problems.

Anodyne Confucianism?

Harmonisation itself is a disputed concept. As with a great deal of Party rhetoric since 1978, it advances an inclusive agenda, wherein the Party represents everyone, not merely the working class. This, however, is where consensus ends. Many authors note that the concept of harmonious society references Confucius, and claim that the Party is hearkening to the values of the past in order to compensate for the ideological void left by the demise of Marxism. Holbig and Gilley disagree, noting that the CCP has faced a series of ideological challenges to Marxism through Confucian revivals over the past two decades. In this context, they interpret harmonisation as a ‘sterilisation’ of Confucianism as a potential rival to Party doctrine.

Ideological Bridging Mechanism?

Some authors go so far as to argue that harmonious society rhetoric is the logical link between current phase of China’s development and still-desired yet distant communism, taking Deng Xiaoping’s line, reiterated by Hu Jintao, that China is in the primary stages of socialism, and that realising the goal of the Party will take generations. One need not take this argument at face value to appreciate the value of harmonisation as a means of seamlessly weaving together the traditional ideological demands of the Party and the politics of the present. Harmonious society can be all things to everyone, precisely because it is not much of anything by itself. Harmonisation nicely accommodates every viewpoint without saying much about any of them, while simultaneously introducing an unhealthy atmosphere of conformism.

We will see that the same indeterminacy applies to the programs subsumed under the umbrella of harmonisation; while these are promising in many respects, it is difficult to make the case that they would not have occurred without harmonisation. Neither do they have any observable coherence among themselves which would suggest a planned, unified reform program that could be called “harmonisation.”


While programs designed to alleviate rural and regional inequality were not new to the party, it has been argued that harmonisation coincided with a new willingness to deal with labour rights issues, as part of a shift away from low-end manufacturing. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) functioned up to this point mainly to prevent the rise of an independent labour movement, thus depressing labour costs, a stance that appears to have moderated to some degree. This is probably one of the best-documented original reforms claimed for harmonisation, and so deserves some attention.

At the level of labour relations, there has been a rise in rhetoric surrounding the role of the ACFTU, with Chairman Wang Zhaoguo calling for the unions to “organise the unorganised and fight for worker rights.” What effect this may have is unclear. Such symbolic victories as the Wal-Mart unionisation have so far been just that; the Wal-Mart union essentially pledged never to strike at its inception, and the avoidance of economic disruption is seen by the ACFTU as essential.

The 2007/8 Labour Contract Law made some advances in employment security, and the consultation process for that law included an unprecedented cross-section of civil society, including NGOs, workers and entrepreneurs. The Labour Contract Law drew over 200 000 online comments from the public following the release of the initial draft, and was extended as a result to cover part-time, contract and farm labour. The law shifted the basis of contract law in favour of employees by encouraging collective bargaining and indefinite-term written contracts. Despite employer resistance to the law, it has had the definite effect of sharply raising the number of employee litigations throughout China, thus providing a new pressure valve for labour discontent.

Part social policy, part macroeconomic tool, the Party’s new labour advocacy seeks to regularise the extremely tenuous position of the workers under market transition. There are many possible contributing factors to this policy, such as a desire to shift to higher-end skilled industries, the need to develop the internal market through a decently-paid workforce, and even latent guilt over the role of the Party of the working class in suppressing the interests of the working class. Yet there is one key factor, namely the increasing awareness and ability of the working class to organise and protest. The Party would have had no choice but to deal with labour irrespective of harmonisation for this reason alone. Further, despite the significant and disruptive effect of the Labour Contract Law, there is no evidence of a coordinated harmonisation plan, either between labour and other areas or within labour policy itself, and the Party organ involved, the ACFTU, remains the least effective aspect of labour policy.

Growth Pains

Harmonisation is commonly understood as implying a renewed focus on problems arising as byproducts of economic growth, particularly “rural poverty, income inequality and environmental degradation.” The Sixth Plenum resolution “Major Issues Concerning the Building of a Socialist Harmonious Society” specifies that the Party’s major focus until 2020 will be redressing inequalities, rebuilding medical care and improving access to education, while attempting to balance economic growth with environmental concerns. Other programs nominally associated with harmonisation include rural education and healthcare schemes and a rural minimum living stipend.

The idea that the Party can redress economic inequalities is predicated on the increase in central government revenue and a desire to redistribute some of that wealth. The central obstacles remain the lack of accountability mechanisms at lower levels of government, which are responsible for administering social programs, and a broken fiscal system. What seems to be lacking at the moment is a comprehensive plan to improve control over local administration, or conversely, to centralise these services. Rather, a series of initiatives that would have been necessary in any case have been brought under the umbrella of the harmonious society, without significant evidence of coordination or an overall plan.


It is most likely that the program of harmonisation is foremost a matter of internal CCP housekeeping. Despite decades of anticorruption work and the removal of high-ranking cadres, corruption remains endemic at every level of administration. Various methods of holding cadres accountable to the people, including local elections, failed. During the past two decades of reform, performance evaluations have had a primarily economic basis, thus encouraging cadres to involve themselves heavily in local business enterprises. The harmonisation paradigm offers the potential to reorient toward good governance, rule of law and responsiveness to public needs, all of which CCP leadership sees as crucial to the Party’s continued ascendancy. Of course, the word itself doesn’t actually solve anything, but no doubt it’s the thought that counts.

In short, harmonious society is less of a policy and more a state of mind, a marker for what was certainly an inevitable shift in the Party’s legitimation strategy in a more advanced stage of economic development. At best, it is a direction that may lead the CCP to fulfill the promises harmonisation has made; at worst, it is a placebo designed to inspire unity while distracting the public from the truth that the Party still has no comprehensive program to deal with the rising tide of inequality, and the people’s rising demand for better services. In either case, harmonisation has certainly set high expectations, if not scientifically testable ones. The Party’s future may depend on its ability to follow through.

Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

Baogang Guo and Sujian Guo, “China in Search of a Harmonious Society” in Baogang Guo and Sujian Guo, eds. China in Search of a Harmonious Society, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2008)

Haiyan Wang, Richard Appelbaum, Francesca Degiuli and Nelson Lichtenstein, “China’s New Labour Contract Law: Is China moving toward increased power for workers?” Third World Quarterly 30 No. 3 (2009)

Alice Miller, “Hu Jintao and the Sixth Plenum,” China Leadership Monitor 20 (Winter 2007)

Joseph Mahoney, “On the Way to Harmony: Marxism, Confucianism and Hu Jintao’s Hexie Concept,” in Baogang Guo and Sujian Guo, eds. China in Search of a Harmonious Society, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2008)

Heike Holbig and Bruce Gilley “Reclaiming Legitimacy in China,” Politics and Policy 38 no. 3 (2010)

Malcolm Warner and Ying Zhu, “Labour and Management in the People’s Republic of China: Seeking the ‘harmonious society’” Asia Pacific Business Review 16 no. 3 (2010)

Christine Wong, “Rebuilding Government for the 21st Century: Can China incrementally reform the public sector?” The China Quarterly 200 (2009)