China's 'Harmonious World' in the Era of the Rising East

By Richard E. Poole
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 2/4 |

Redefining the 'Harmonious World:' Beyond Official Rhetoric

One way of gaining a deeper, richer and possibly more diverse understanding of China's vision of world order is to assess policy and concepts linked to the 'harmonious world' maxim in China's domestic affairs. In fact, 'harmonious society,' or as it is referred to within China, 'harmonious socialist society,' is considered to be the domestic alter ego or counterpart of the 'harmonious world' international policy; together creating a unified Chinese national goal (Tok and Zheng 2007, p. 04).

Domestically, the concept of 'harmonious society' introduced in 2004 set out to tackle China's growing domestic issues that had arisen due to the country's rapid development, or had been inherited from its past. These ranged from for instance, environmental degradation, regional disparities, and growing social and economic gaps across the country (Tok and Zheng 2007, p. 02). As Guo and Blanchard assert, "just as a harmonious society respects people, avoids confrontation, seeks to narrow income gaps, aids disadvantaged groups, and respects nature, it is implicit that a harmonious world is one where supposed 'heresies' are tolerated" (Guo and Blanchard 2008, p. 04). Accordingly, studying 'harmonious society' could reveal key and novel insights into what the 'harmonious world' may mean as an extension of China's domestic behaviours (Geis and Holt 2011, p. 84).

Whilst in theory the 'harmonious society' is a praiseworthy approach, seeking to tackle some of the major problems in China (such as its economic and social polarization), a darker side to the 'harmonious society' is increasingly evident within China. In fact, the term 'harmony' in itself has become a site of resistance (Callahan 2011b, p. 262-264; Nordin 2011; Kuhn 2010). The officialdom of the term is often used paradoxically as a discursive power base to mock the leadership.

The recent incidents with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands raise questions as to just how peaceful China's 'harmonious world' may be, particularly if China feels other international powers are being 'disharmonious.'

On online platforms such as Weibo (China's version of Twitter), 'harmony' (hexie) is frequently used as a verb to describe the censorship of content, or in regards to the monitoring and imprisonment of dissidents and activists by the CCP over their actions (Nordin 2011, pp. 04-06; Du et al 2012). As Khun notes, in 2009, a blogger named Doubleleaf discovered that his blog had been blocked within China, he states: - "I thought: 'I've been harmonized… The government just covers up all sorts of conflicts, problems and clashes through coercion… They feel this is very harmonious, but it's really not. It's nothing more than an illusion." (Khun 2010, italics added).

Indeed, during riots in Urumqi the same year, the Chinese government did not only censor the Internet, but in fact shut it down, and preceded to send in 7,000 army-style 'harmony makers' to restore order and guarantee stability (Tobin 2012; Callahan 2011c, p. 105; CNN 2009).

Harmonious World

Figure 1 shows the word 和諧 (harmony) with the 口 (meaning 'mouth') in both characters covered with band-aids as if silenced (Du et al. 2012, p. 14).

Thus, whilst Hu appears to advocate 'harmony-with-difference' between nations and civilisations, and 'mutual co-existence' internationally, a different picture appears to be advocated domestically. Given that this 'harmonious society' is supposed to be a model for the world (Xiaoying 2006), this may suggest two things about China's official 'harmonious world' policy.

Firstly, it may imply that harmony should not be understood as necessarily synonymous with inclusion, but instead possibly equated with the oppression of divergent views and so-called 'heresies' in a hierarchical fashion (as Figure 1 suggests); 'harmony' thus becomes 'elite harmony' (Du et al. 2012).

Secondly, that whilst 'common peace and prosperity' may be the end goal of the 'harmonious world' policy, the means, or route taken, need not be pacifistic, but in fact forcefully asserted to ensure stability and unity2.

Such a perspective is further supported by the release of a 2010 book by Lui Mingfu entitled "China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post-American Age" (Mingfu 2010). As Senior Colonel of People's Liberation Army (PLA) and a Chinese professor, Lui's opinions are definitely important to foreign policy analysis. As Alan Romberg argues, "'elite opinion' is one part of 'public opinion' that China's leadership pays attention to, and [this] includes the opinions of the PLA" (Romberg 2010, cited in People's Daily Online English 2010).

In addition, the success of his bestselling book within China demonstrates that it also resonates with the interests of its domestic audience, and Lui himself has purported that his approach "reflects a tide of thought" in China (Mingfu 2010, cited in People's Daily Online English 2010). Within the book, Lui argues from a realist perspective that China must ensure that its 'economic rise' is matched by a 'military rise,' as a "'peaceful world' and 'harmonious world' can only be realised in the context of an international balance of power" (Mingfu 2010; Hughes 2010; Callahan 2012, pp. 633-635).

Lui therefore emphasises that a military rise is needed as to "protect national security, uphold world peace and achieve unification" in the face of other major powers like the United States, who do not understand, and consequently pose a threat, to the Chinese concepts of 'harmonious world' and more critically the world itself (Hughes 2010; Peoples Daily Online English 2010).

Of course, questions arise over this interpretation as to 'whose harmony' Lui is concerned with (a harmonious world without/against the US?), and when aggressive or military actions are deemed to be taken in order to protect the greater good of harmony and peace in the world. Much like the domestic scenario where certain voices are suppressed for being 'disharmonious' or are considered threatening to the 'harmonious society,' Lui's vision could also suggest a more ominous understanding of the 'harmony' concept as a way of condoning aggressive international action by the Chinese state.

Empirically, China has certainly been increasing its military capacity, "with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimating Beijing's 2011 defence budget at $142.2 billion," quadrupling what it was in 2000 (South China Morning Post 2012). Furthermore, the recent incidents with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands raise questions as to just how peaceful China's 'harmonious world' may be, particularly if China feels other international powers are being 'disharmonious.'

Certainly, the Chinese government has shown greater assertiveness in past few months, and the recent release of a new passport map displaying disputed territories as within Chinese sovereignty perhaps suggests the state's future foreign policy intentions (BBC News 2012a).

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