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[By S. P. Seth] China’s ‘happy blossoms’

The Communist Party of China has coined and promoted many slogans from Mao Zedong’s time to the present day. A slogan-driven regime treats its people simultaneously as morons and a dangerous rabble. Mao said that China’s people were “poor and blank” and one could write beautiful things on a blank sheet of paper.

In other words, Mao wanted to write his own script on this blank sheet of paper after he prevailed in China’s civil war in 1949. And at times this new script needed to be rendered into easy slogans to follow the supreme leader.

This practice still continues, though not on the same scale. Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” slogan is a case in point. Like previous Party slogans, this too is intended to hide a harsh reality. It tends to paper over the reality of multiple contradictions enveloping China, leading to growing social unrest in the country.

A slogan is and was also a diversion when things were not going right. Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society,” for instance, is increasingly acrimonious. This is evident from the harsh treatment of dissidents and protesters. The government is worried about a potential popular upsurge against the CPC’s rule on the lines of similar movements in Arab countries against their corrupt and venal rulers.

Even as China’s oligarchs are trying to clamp down on a potential rebellion by targeting artists, human rights activists and others championing democracy, they worry about slowdown of China’s economy, and its social, economic and political consequences.

In the absence a popular electoral mandate, China’s rulers have sought to cultivate a measure of legitimacy by: (1) rapid economic growth in the hope that some of it will trickle down to the masses; and (2) make China into a powerful nation and thereby channel some of their energies into national pride.

Regarding the first: China’s economy is starting to slow down; while inflation, asset bubbles, structural imbalances, urban-rural divide, and the growing gaps in income are creating severe social problems. China’s rulers are, therefore, worried that their main claim to legitimacy ― economic growth and social stability ― is whittling down.

Since high economic growth is no longer sustainable, the party needs a new slogan to divert people’s attention. The “harmonious society” is therefore, making a detour to become a “happy” society. It started with Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech at this year’s National People’s Congress defining the Party’s goal to make prosperity more “balanced.” The media and propaganda channels took it from there and started a happiness campaign.

As Keith Richburg reported from Beijing in the Washington Post, “On the May Day holiday in Beijing 17 giant screens and thousands of small televisions on buses and subways and in office buildings showed ‘happy testimonials’ from workers.” And: “Beijing Television ran a series of short films called ‘Happy Blossoms’ documenting the apparently contented lives of teachers, factory workers and others.”

Not to be left behind, the local and regional governments are said to be “drawing up happiness indexes and competing with one another for the title of ‘China’s happiest city.’” In other words, “to get rich is glorious” is becoming outdated (at least for the aspirational class, as they cannot reach there), replaced by “happiness.” And the happiest people apparently are low paid teachers, factory workers and the like.

But if the party is trying to hoodwink the masses with this new “happiness” mantra, while the rich and mega rich are getting richer, they might have another thing coming. Therefore, the slowing economy has serious social and economic portents, which no amount of “happiness” sloganeering is likely to abate.

On the second point of nationalist pride as an exercise in legitimacy: the CPC has worked on it by highlighting China’s humiliation in the past by European colonial powers, and Japan. At times, it has been taken to a controlled feverish pitch, especially against Japan. Against this backdrop of rage, China has told the world that (1) it will not be messed with any more and; (2) that it might be time to right the wrongs of the past.

This is what lies behind Beijing’s claim to a big chunk of the Asia-Pacific region (as its area of influence) and its seas; even though China’s wrath is being visited on its neighbors who have equally legitimate sovereign claims on some of these islands and sea around them.

Take the recent case of Chinese naval boats sabotaging Vietnam’s oil exploration activity in its maritime area, which China regards as its own. Vietnam has accused China of creating confrontation in the South China Sea and thus escalating regional tensions. According to the Vietnamese account, three Chinese boats deliberately severed their survey ship’s cable in Vietnamese waters by sailing through the area. Vietnam has maintained that its navy “will do everything necessary” to protect the country’s sovereignty.

China, on the other hand, maintains that the actions of its vessels were “completely” justified. It has warned Vietnam against “creating new incidents.”

The U.S. is said to be “concerned” about growing tensions between China and its neighbors.

Lately, China has indulged in some expansive military rhetoric. Last year, there were statements from some generals about the need to protect China’s far-flung economic and political interests.

This year, General Liu Yuan, son of Mao Zedong’s one-time anointed heir Liu Shaoqi who was virtually hounded to death in the Cultural Revolution, has penned an essay glorifying war. He has reportedly written, “Military culture is the oldest and most important wisdom of humanity.” He adds, “Without war, where would grand unity come from? Without force, how could fusion of the nation, the race, the culture, the south and the north be achieved?”

This kind of ideology glorifying military culture and war is frightening ― to say the least. And this should also worry the party that has always maintained that it alone commands the gun, and not the other way around.

Another general, Luo Yuan, has reportedly suggested punishing the United States by dumping U.S. bonds; while Major General Zu Chenghu wants China to ditch its “no first strike” commitment for the use of nuclear weapons.

As the transition to power of the new leadership in 2012 draws near, China is in a bit of a muddle. There is an ideological tussle ― inevitably involving power struggle ― going on between the “left” and “right” of the Party ― the former evoking Mao and the latter urging further economic liberalization and political reform within the party.

General Liu, who is the political commissar of the logistics department, is hitching his wagon to the “left’s” caravan by turning the clock back to the fifties with a call to: “Let’s start again.”

Is there an element in this of redeeming his father, who had become the enemy number one in Mao’s slogan of “Bombard the Headquarters,“ that started the Cultural Revolution in 1966? If so, even as China faces increasing social instability, the CPC too might be entering a power struggle akin to a new cultural revolution.

It is unlikely to have the same intensity without the “helmsman.” In other words, the ghost of the “helmsman” is no substitute for the real Mao. But, as the proverb goes, China is living in interesting times.

By S. P. Seth

S. P. Seth is a commentator based in Australia. He was a senior editor at the Times of India and write for a number of newspapers on Chinese and Asia-Pacific affairs. ― Ed.