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China’s Social Divisions and the Search for a Common “Baseline”

Tags: China , Society and Culture , Xi Jinping , Structural Reform , Human Rights

Oikawa, Junko

August 15, 2016

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Transcending the conflicting interests of China’s increasingly divided and fragmented society has become a preoccupation among government leaders and intellectuals alike. Junko Oikawa examines this phenomenon through the lens of trending buzzwords, particularly the ubiquitous di xian (baseline).

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To understand the situation in China today, we need to look at the changing relationship between society and the state. The government of President Xi Jinping has placed top priority on maintaining social stability, but it is struggling to reconcile the varied and often conflicting interests of an increasingly diverse and complex society.

There are many ways to study and assess this kind of change, but my own approach involves analyzing public discourse in an attempt to understand the thinking and behavior of the people who make up Chinese society. In this context, it has become fairly standard to highlight trending watchwords and catchphrases as clues to prevailing attitudes. My hope is that careful attention to the nuances of such jargon can contribute to our picture of Chinese society’s growing complexity.

My immediate focus in this paper is the term di xian (“baseline” or “bottom line”), a buzzword that appears again and again in public discourse on the subject of social reform. China watchers encounter it continually in media commentary and scholarly analysis, as well as in our personal communications with Chinese scholars and journalists. According to the dictionary I have at hand, di xian has the core meaning of a boundary line or goal line in games like soccer and tennis and the figurative meaning of “minimum condition” or “lower limit.” In discussions of social reform, di xian is generally used in the sense of “basic standards” or “core goals.” Some typical usage examples are zuo ren de di xian (minimum living standards) and she hui dao de di xian (core social mores). In this article, I have opted to retain the Chinese in most contexts so as to avoid misleading translations.

Why have commentators embraced the term di xian when speaking of the need to build a better society? How does its usage reflect the changing relationship between society and the state? And what exactly are China’s core goals for social reform?

China’s Social Divisions

The first thing we need to consider when grappling with these questions is the conflicts and divisions that have rent Chinese society in recent years. Not long ago, it was possible for Chinese analysts to group the social structure into one of two broad categories: establishment (ti zhi nei, or “within the system”) and nonestablishment (ti zhi wai, or “outside of the system”)—in other words, those who support the status quo of one-party rule by the Communist Party of China and the dissenters. But political and social discourse today does not lend itself to this kind of either/or classification. On such topics as political reform and liberalism, one encounters a remarkably wide range of views from people inside as well as outside the political establishment. Public discourse today exhibits an unprecedented degree of complexity as analysts and commentators clash along various axes that defy the establishment/nonestablishment dichotomy.

One expression of this phenomenon is the phrase Zhao jia ren, meaning “the Zhao family” or “the Zhaos,” which enjoyed an explosion in popularity on the Chinese Internet around the end of last year. It initially appeared in a series of commentaries circulating online concerning revelations that interests backed by powerful figures in the party and the military had played a pivotal role in a high-profile domestic corporate takeover fight—a story that had sparked public indignation. In the commentaries, Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, referred to those privileged elements as Zhao jia ren in an allusion to Lu Xun’s 1921 novella A Q zheng zhuan (The True Story of Ah Q), in which the protagonist, an uneducated peasant, is berated by the patriarch of the powerful and wealthy Zhao family for claiming to be a member of that clan.[1] In no time, the expression Zhao jia ren went viral as a code word for the politically well-connected in contemporary Chinese society, and it was not long before the CPC issued a directive prohibiting the term’s use by the media.[2]

Of course, other terms and phrases have been used to convey the existence of a privileged stratum in Chinese society. For example, the quan gui ji tuan (“dignitary groups”) are interests that have gained disproportionate influence through party connections. The phenomenon whereby individual family members and friends of party officials have amassed great wealth has been dubbed “dignitary capitalism”—the Chinese equivalent of crony capitalism. The “princelings” (tai zi dang) refers to the offspring of the party elite of the previous generation. Particularly powerful in both the political and economic sphere is a group known as the “second-generation reds” (hong er dai), the descendants of senior party officials recognized for their contribution to the Communist revolution.

However, Zhao jia ren goes beyond these earlier terms. Through its allusion to a Lu Xun novel familiar to most Chinese, it clearly implies the existence of an entrenched, insurmountable gap between the haves and have-nots comparable to that between the landowners and the peasant class in prerevolutionary China. This points to an important shift in attitudes. In the heyday of economic reform, there persisted a widespread belief that hard work would be rewarded and that some degree of economic inequality was the unavoidable price of growth. But nowadays opportunity seems closed off to all but the privileged few—the Zhaos and their ilk. Members of the latter group, needless to say, are bound and determined to hold onto their influence and privilege, while the masses view their activities with mounting resentment and despair. The meteoric rise of the term Zhao jia ren is evidence of the depth of the new divisions rending Chinese society today.

Diverging Baselines

The public take on government-led reforms is shifting as well. Not long ago, critics and commentators embraced the saying, “To reform is to seek one’s own death; not to reform is to wait for death”—an aphorism conveying at once the urgency and difficulty of pursuing structural reform. Nowadays, the trend seems to be toward the blatant pessimism of headlines like “Reform is dead.” Xi Jinping’s pledge to “comprehensively deepen reform” in the five areas of the economy, politics, culture, society, and “ecological civilization” has proven difficult to fulfill in the face of stubborn structural obstacles.

Against this background of stalled reforms and ever-more-pronounced social divisions, commentators inside and outside official circles have seized on the concept of di xian. What are the basic social goals on which all elements of this increasingly divided society can agree? A few years back, the question emerged as a prominent theme in the reform debate. The thinking seemed to be that if the nation could clearly articulate its core values and goals, it might finally be able to make real progress toward reform.

The concept of di xian has been the subject of several academic works that have attracted notice in recent years. Prominent among these is the 2013 book Gong tong de di xian (Seeking a Common Baseline) by the historian Qin Hui, a professor at Tsinghua University. In this work, the author argues that the Chinese must transcend the old ideological divisions between left and right and strive for social reform aimed at achieving, at a minimum, “the basic freedoms, rights, and social guarantees.” In 2014 came Guo jia di xian: Gong ping zheng yi yu yi fa zhi guo (National Baseline: Equity, Justice, and the Rule of Law), a collection of essays on the theme of di xian by 18 Chinese scholars, edited by Yu Keping, director of the Center for Chinese Government Innovations at Peking University. Significantly, all of the contributors agree on the paramount importance of the rule of law and the need to promote democratic decision-making within the Communist Party. For the authors of this work, di xian refers to the rule of law.

How do these independent views square with the official use of di xian within the Xi Jinping regime?

Beginning with his address to the CPC’s 18th National Congress in November 2012, Xi’s early discourses on national leadership frequently featured the phrase di xian si wei, commonly translated as “bottom-line thinking.” In a series of major speeches in 2013 and and 2014, Xi asserted that China’s leaders must “adhere to di xian si wei,” which he explained as “preparing for the worst while striving for the best” without avoiding or concealing difficult truths.[3] In this context, Xi’s di xian seemed to denote a foundation from which one builds—the base camp from which one climbs to reach the peak.

But the government’s interpretation and use of the term di xian have changed markedly since then. The term appears repeatedly in the CPC’s updated code of conduct and disciplinary sanctions adopted in October 2015. In the context of these strict new guidelines and penalties, di xian denotes the basic ethical norms to which party members are expected to adhere at all times. At the same time the revised regulations were announced, the government launched a campaign to raise awareness under the slogan “Maintain high standards, preserve the di xian.” As the Xi regime undertook a vigorous anti-corruption drive, di xian was transformed from a leadership buzzword into a watchword for party discipline. In this context, the government was using it in the same basic sense as the intellectuals who defined it in terms of freedom, rights, social guarantees, and the rule of law—that is, a basic standard or benchmark. The context and nuance, however, were quite different.

The di xian as defined by China’s scholars and intellectuals is by no means consistent with the government’s goals. Instead of a shared baseline, we are seeing the emergence of multiple baselines. For today’s “Zhaos,” for instance, di xian is the line they need to uphold to guard against threats to their own privileged position. Independent, reform-oriented intellectuals, meanwhile, are finding it more and more difficult to speak out on the basic goals of di xian reforms. The Xi regime has pursued a ruthless crackdown on free speech, banning the use of such language as “universal values,” “constitutional government,” and “civil society” in the media and the classroom. The Chinese government seems determined to root out Western values and assert complete ideological control over the nation.

Where the Official and Popular Visions Intersect

Around the time that Zhao jia ren was trending, a short essay was being passed around and shared via social media. The author was Zi Zhongyun, a party elder and former director of the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The piece, titled Chao ye de gong shi yu fen qi (Disconnect Between the Official and Popular Perceptions), was actually a transcription of remarks made by Zi Zhongyun in February 2014 at a mass meeting of editors and writers involved in the liberal monthly journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, and it had already appeared in print in the April 2014 issue of the magazine. At the outset of her remarks, Zi Zhongyun asks whether the perceptions of the Chinese government and those of the Chinese people have anything left in common. Her answer is that the government and the people seem to agree on at least one point: No one wants an outbreak of civil or social turmoil; everyone hopes that Chinese society can negotiate a peaceful transition via progressively deepening reforms.

Avoiding civil unrest may seem like a depressingly passive goal compared with the basic freedoms and rights that other intellectuals have set forth as a vision for Chinese society. As a di xian, it might seem a dramatic lowering of the bar. Some critics might even criticize it as a craven compromise with the “stability first” policies of the current regime. But the revival of these remarks after a period of two years suggests that they resonate strongly with readers.

The fact is that quite a few Chinese intellectuals appear to have waxed cynical about reform, having witnessed the political turmoil of the Arab Spring and the outbreak of terrorism in its aftermath. “We may have an authoritarian government,” they are sometimes heard to say, “but at least it’s better than anarchy and civil war.” That said, Zi Zhongyun’s statement was not an expression of cynicism or resignation. I was in attendance at the meeting in 2014, and her words left a deep impression on me. She continued by saying, “What China needs above all else is citizens with the capacity for rational, modern thought, not an ignorant, submissive populace.”

How will the concept of di xian evolve in the years ahead? The current regime is concerned first and foremost with maintaining the political status quo, and social stability is a precondition for the continued survival of the system. But from that standpoint, surely the bottom line should be upholding the basic rights of the citizens as set forth in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. The current regime has given plenty of lip service to the rule of law. Now it needs to follow through on that promise and enforce full compliance with the nation’s constitution.

At the same time, the Chinese people must become more conscious of their rights, and this requires an even more active role by scholars, civil rights lawyers, and other intellectuals who exert an influence on public opinion. This pooling of resources from the public and private spheres—each leveraging its own strengths—is the single most important condition for genuine social reform in China. Needless to say, such a joint effort can only happen if there is a place for free speech and public discourse.

If, on the other hand, the reality of Chinese society remains in stark conflict with the government’s platitudes about the rule of law, then the divisions in Chinese society will continue to deepen, leading to social unrest that could ultimately threaten the stability of the regime.



[1] The articles were published on the website of the Hong Kong–based Oriental Daily. See http://hk.on.cc/cn/bkn/cnt/commentary/20151225/bkncn-20151225000320555-1225_05411_001_cn.html, http://hk.on.cc/cn/bkn/cnt/commentary/20160101/bkncn-20160101000314867-0101_05411_001_cn.html, and http://hk.on.cc/cn/bkn/cnt/commentary/20160115/bkncn-20160115000316986-0115_05411_001_cn.html

[2] See http://www.aboluowang.com/2016/0105/671614.html

[3] “Yi di xian si wei ding bian jian,” Renmin Ribao, March 17, 2014.

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