The topic of building a harmonious society is under discussion throughout the country and a theme of the ongoing NPC and CPPCC annual sessions. But precisely what is a harmonious society, and is it actually possible to build one? China.org.cn interviewed leading sociologist Dr. Li Peilin to find out.
China.org.cn: A decision made at the Fourth Plenum of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2004 says that the building of a harmonious society, in which everyone has an opportunity to make a living, must be put at the top of the Party’s work agenda. Why did the CPC make that decision?
Dr. Li: We could say that it is the inevitable outcome of social development in China. In the 26 years since the reform and opening policy was implemented, we have seen tremendous changes in both the economic system and social structure. However, in such a large territory with such a big population, along with the great achievements made in a short period come problems and headaches. These include the growing income disparity, the urban and rural development imbalance, unemployment, an aging population and environmental pollution.
It used to be assumed that all these problems would be solved automatically or reduced to insignificance by economic development and increased wealth. But economic achievements and the market economy are by no means a remedy for everything. Therefore, it is really necessary for China to seek a way to develop harmoniously.
China.org.cn: You have said that we are in a period of decisive importance for economic and social transformation. Why is an environment of social harmony so vital to China’s modernization drive now?
Dr. Li: The fact is that China has experienced its golden period of economic and social development in the past decade. In 2004, for example, GDP grew by about 9.5 percent, with growth in consumer prices kept to about 3 percent. We also saw the first drop in the urban unemployment rate since 1991 and a historical increase in farmers’ income.
This also is a period of decisive importance, when a country’s per capita GDP reaches US$1,000 to 3,000. Sociologically, it is a transitional period. International experience shows that it features rapid transition of the industrial structure, dramatic change of social interests and challenges to existing political and governmental institutions. A number of countries experienced an economic takeoff in the 1970s. Some of them have progressed smoothly to achieve per capita GDP of US$10,000 to 20,000 because they found sound solutions to social conflicts, while others linger at US$4,000 or less because they didn't.
That may be the reason China is alert and the government is calling for proper solutions to social problems and the building of a harmonious society. This will enable the great cause of reform and opening, which benefits the nation and its people, to advance to a higher stage.
China.org.cn: What are some of the characteristics of a harmonious society?
Dr. Li: First of all, a harmonious society should be relatively wealthy, since material wealth is fundamental to social harmony. Nevertheless, there are also some other vital factors, including distribution of social wealth and coordination of social interests. Therefore, basic equality and justice, which guarantee all the people benefit from and share in the economic growth and social development, characterize a harmonious society.
Next, a harmonious society must be stable, with rules and order. But a harmonious society is also full of vitality. This is an ideal society in which the vitality of labor, knowledge, technology, management and capital may flourish and flow freely.
Third, a harmonious society means not only harmony between different interests, but also a harmony in values. It suggests people living and working in peace and contentment, having good careers and in high spirits. At the same time, this is a society in which the majority has a solid awareness of the obligations of citizens and high ethical standards.
China.org.cn: What gauges can be used to measure a harmonious society?
Dr. Li: There are some norms we can follow. An important index for a modernized country is that being a farmer does not equate to being poor. The fact is, however, that there remains a large gap in income and benefits between urban and rural areas in China. Rural China is still home to the majority of low-income and impoverished people according to international standards. Therefore, there is an urgent need to relieve poverty while establishing a social security umbrella to fully cover rural communities.
There should also be balanced regional development. At present, regional disparities continue to grow, so we should seek a new development pattern to halt to that trend. These should include development of the west, reconstruction of the northeast industrial region and revitalization of the central region, while accelerating the development of the eastern and coastal regions.
We must have harmony between different social strata. The gap between rich and poor has grown in the past decade, resulting in an increase in conflicts of interest. Some of these have led to social disorder or hatred. The government should pay close attention to the relations between the rich and poor, between labor and management and between the authorities and the ordinary people. It must make full use of economic leverage, such as budget, taxation and welfare, to coordinate distribution and redistribution and expand the middle class while shrinking the low-income group.
A balanced employment structure is necessary. The farming population accounts for as much as 49 percent of China’s total, which inevitably hinders the transition to a modern social structure. It is essential that we move 100 million redundant rural workers to the cities in 15 years. That means we need to create more jobs while developing education and organizing occupational training for more people. The goal is to change China from a big country in terms of population into a big country in terms of personnel resources.
Then we come to the harmonious population structure. China’s family planning policy, which has been carried out for 30 years, is such a success that net population growth has been reduced to about 8 million per year. However, a new headache has appeared: the population is aging before the country is developed. The government must accelerate the establishment of a sound social security system while improving understanding of values between generations.
Other gauges to be watched are harmony between people and environment, maintaining political stability through improvement of the socialist democratic system, curbing corruption and upgrading management. China should also seek improvement in international relations to guarantee a good environment for its long-term development.
China.org.cn: You have talked about many different areas in which the government must create and maintain a balance. To what areas do you believe the government should give priority?
Dr. Li: Yes, the government has quite a lot to do in this regard, indeed. Urgent tasks include straightening out income distribution, improving the social security system, better managing social conflicts, creating more jobs, safeguarding social justice and building a crisis management system. It is vital for the government to improve its method of governance by better managing its relations with the market and with society.
China.org.cn: As the saying goes, you can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time. In this regard, does the government see a need to build more flexibility into its plans and policymaking?
Dr. Li: We have seen over time that the kind of reform that would benefit everyone exists no more. Nevertheless, it’s still necessary for society to have an institution that provides help for the disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.
(Li Peilin was born in 1955 in Shandong Province and received his PhD in 1987 from the Sorbonne in Paris. He is now deputy director of the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.)
(China.org.cn by staff reporter Wandi Jiang, March 4, 2005)