One of the most encouraging things about former Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin's report at the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on November 8 was the call for building a xiaokang, or well-off society "of a higher standard in an all-round way."
This indicates China's leadership will pay more attention to overall social progress in addition to economic growth.
Confucian in origin, the term xiaokang literally means "moderate well-off," a status less affluent than "well-off," but better off than freedom from want.
When China initiated reform and opening-up policies two decades ago, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping used xiaokang, a household term in China, to describe Chinese-style modernization and referred to it as a goal to be attained by the nation by the end of the 20th century.
He further elaborated on his concept of xiaokang in 1984, saying "xiaokang means that, by the end of this century, our per capita gross domestic product (GDP) reaches US$800."
Although the Chinese people have on the whole reached that standard of living, Jiang said in his report the well-off life we are leading is still "at a low level" and is "not all-inclusive and very uneven."
This conclusion conforms to the reality given that China's per capita GDP is only US$1,000, compared to a minimum of US$3,000 in developed countries.
There is also a big gap between people of different social strata and in different regions.
In fact, as China advances on the tide of times, the standard of xiaokang is rising along the way.
The recent Party congress has set the goal to quadruple the country's per capita GDP of 2000 by the year 2020, meaning the per capita GDP will exceed US$3,000.
Moreover, many social indices, such as employment, education and the environment, are taken into account as new norms of xiaokang.
China may not have much difficulty in lifting its per capita GDP to US$3,000 if the momentum of economic growth is maintained.
The real challenge China faces in pursuit of an overall xiaokang society is to promote social progress because xiaokang denotes not only material comfort, but harmonious development in all aspects.
The sticky jobs China needs to take on mainly include urbanization, the promotion of education and reshaping social strata.
Urbanization is a major criterion of social development. In developed countries, urban residents account for more than 70 percent of the population.
But the figure is only 37.7 percent in China despite the country's rapid progress in the past two decades.
The reason is that many of China's domestic policies -- including policies on residence, land use, education, health, employment and social security -- differentiate between cities and rural areas, which hinders the urbanization process.
But the process will be in the fast lane now China is beginning to loosen the rigid residence registration system, which prevents rural people moving to cities freely.
The ratio of urban residents to China's population is very likely to reach 55 percent by 2020.
China needs to enhance its education to facilitate further social development.
The country's education still lags behind many other countries, although many universities have been increasing enrollments since 1999.
To build a well-off society, China must increase the proportion of college students to over 20 percent of their generation.
It also needs a blossoming tertiary sector, or service industry that takes up more than 45 percent of the economy.
There are many other criteria of affluence, such as the Engel Index, infant mortality, life expectancy and the growth of population. China also needs to make efforts to raise these standards.
But a more important job is to optimize the structure of social strata, which is a key gauge of social development.
Unlike conventional societies where a few people possess most wealth, modern societies feature an "olive-shaped" structure where most people are middle-income earners while very few are poor or super-rich.
Such a structure ensures fair distribution of wealth among different strata and is best for sustained social development.
Many new professions and social groups, such as entrepreneurs, have arisen in China with the reform and opening-up in the past two decades and the country's changing social structure is yet to mature.
One major problem is that the middle-income earners, including private proprietors, rich farmers, managers, professionals and senior business staff, is yet to expand.
The middle-income earners account for 18 percent or so of the population in China, compared to 40 percent in Western countries.
Hopefully, the number can reach about 35 percent by 2020 if the number of middle-class people increases by 1 percent each year.
A mature population of middle-income earners is very important to China's stability and development because most middle-income earners advocate current policies and have considerable purchasing power.
As more well-educated people join the group, the middle-income earners will help elevate the cultural standard of the society.
The government needs to reform a series of policies to reduce the low-income group and cultivate the middle-income earners.
It should not merely eye higher per capita GDP figures, but try to make its policies fairer and more reasonable.
For example, it is imperative to break the residence registration system, or hukou, because the system makes it difficult for rural people to find jobs in cities and therefore climb to higher rungs of the social ladder.
Proper taxation measures are also needed to bridge the gap between different social strata.
The Party congress has drafted the blueprint of a more optimal social structure. Now it is time for the government to implement policies accordingly to turn this blueprint into reality.
The author is a researcher at the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
(China Daily December 3, 2002)