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Moderately Prosperous Society
Xiǎokāng Shèhuì

In 1979, leaders of the People’s Republic of China began describing the creation of a “moderately prosperous society” as a unifying aim of all work done by the Communist Party of China. Alternatively translated as a “well-off society,” the term’s origins lie in a classical Confucian phrase for a prospering social order that nevertheless falls short of utopian ideals. Reformers elevated the term to orthodoxy both to signal that the Maoist struggle for utopia was over and that party work should henceforth be focused on the more practical needs of normal economic development. For several decades party leaders identified the year 2021—the centennial of the CPC’s founding—as the date on which China would secure its status as a moderately prosperous society. When in 2021 Chinese officials duly declared that China had in fact become moderately prosperous, they were not only celebrating the economic successes of the previous three decades but justifying the Party’s transition away from a narrow focus on economic growth to a broader pursuit of NATIONAL REJUVENATION on all fronts. 

The idea of “moderate prosperity,” or xiǎokāng [小康], dates back to the Book of Rites, one of the canonical texts of the Confucian tradition. There Confucius described a past golden age where “the world was shared by all alike. The worthy and the able were promoted to office and men practiced good faith and lived in affection. Therefore they did not regard as parents only their own parents, or as sons only their own sons” (Chen 2011). Confucius called this utopic past dàtóng [大同] , or “the Great Unity.” He contrasted this with the xiǎokāng societies founded by worthy rulers of his own day, which despite being well-ordered, governed by ritual, and relatively wealthy did not attain the harmony and moral excellence of the distant past. 

Exposure to Western thought prompted Chinese intellectuals to reimagine these Confucian ideals for modern conditions. Both the late Qing reformer Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and his political opponent, the aspiring democrat Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), endorsed dàtóng as the ultimate goal of their political programs (Kang redefined “moderate prosperity” as a social stage that would immediately precede dàtóng). Mao Zedong equated dàtóng with the promise of communism, arguing that his revolution would create the “conditions where classes, state power and political parties will die out very naturally.” Mao predicted that once the proletariat’s internal class enemies had been defeated “China can develop steadily, under the leadership of the working class and the Communist Party, from an agricultural into an industrial country, and from a new-democratic into a socialist and communist society, [and then] can abolish classes and realize dàtóng” (Mao 1949). 

It is against this backdrop that Deng Xiaoping revived the idea of “moderate prosperity” as an achievable alternative to utopia. In a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, Deng explained that “moderate prosperity” was the CPC’s mid-term goal for the modernization of China. “Even if we reach [moderate prosperity],” he confessed, “we will still be a backward nation compared to Western countries. However, at that point China will be a country with comparative prosperity and our people will enjoy a much higher standard of living than they do now” (Deng 1979). For party apparatchiks used to the grandiose plans of the Mao era, the new slogan was a remarkably honest assessment of China’s national conditions and served as a realistic goal for national development. Deng even pegged his version of moderate prosperity to a specific dollar amount: China would be a moderately prosperous society when it had per capita gross national income (GNI) of $800 to $1,000 USD.

The economic boom years forced a reassessment of the phrase’s meaning. Though China’s GNI per capita reached $800 in 1998, stark disparity between urban and rural economic had emerged and many regions of China remained in extreme poverty. It was evident that Deng’s index was insufficient to capture the full scope of what a moderately prosperous society would look like. As Jiang Zemin remarked, “The moderately prosperous life we are leading is still at a low level, it is not all-inclusive and is very uneven” (Jiang 2002). In 1997, he expanded the concept to encompass a more holistic set of goals: GDP growth, rural development, improved living standards, the implementation of a social security system, the strengthening of governing institutions and education, poverty alleviation, and protection of the environment. Jiang codified these goals with the new slogan “comprehensively [全面] building a moderately prosperous society.” Jiang further stated that this all around version of the moderately prosperous society would be achieved by 2020.   

Xi Jinping endorsed “comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society” as key to his own domestic platform, codifying it as the first item in a quartet of policy aims known as the FOUR COMPREHENSIVES. He often articulated this goal as a battle to eradicate extreme poverty. In Xi’s words, "it is a solemn promise made by our party to ensure that poor people and poor areas will enter a moderately prosperous society together with the rest of the country“ (State Council Information Office 2021). 

In early 2021, the Communist Party of China declared that this promise had been fulfilled. The battle was over: extreme poverty had been officially eradicated from China, and moderate prosperity has been officially extended throughout the country. A host of critics pounced on these pronouncements, pointing to gaps between official rhetoric and ground realities in China’s poorest regions. Yet declaring the mission accomplished was less about self-congratulations on the part of party leaders than an urgent sense the Party needed to reorient itself around a new set of goals. REFORM AND OPENING had made China rich: now it was time for China to become strong. Accordingly, the first item of the Four Comprehensives was changed from “comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society" to "comprehensively building a modern socialist country [全面建设社会主义现代化国家]."



2002. “Full Text of Jiang Zemin's Report at the 16th Party Congress.” China.org.cn; Bandurski, David. 2022. “Four Comprehensives.” China Media Project; Chen, Albert H. Y. 2011. “The Concept of ‘Datong’ in Chinese Philosophy as an Expression of the Idea of the Common Good.” University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law Research Paper, No. 2011/020; Delury, John. 2008. “‘Harmonious’ In China: The Ancient Sources of Modern Doctrine.” Hoover Institution; Deng Xiaoping. 1979. “China’s Goal is to Achieve Comparative Prosperity by the End of the Century.” Marxist Online Archives; He, Henry Yuhuai. 2015. Dictionary of the Political Thought of the People’s Republic of China. London: Routledge; Mao Zedong. “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship 30 June 1949.” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung: Vol. IV; Smith, Craig. 2019. “Datong and Xiaokang.” In Afterlives of Chinese Communism, ed. Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere. Australia: ANU Press and Verso Books; The State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China. 2021. “Poverty Alleviation: China’s Experience and Contribution.” Xinhua; Yang Shengqun. 2017. “From Initiating the Target of Moderate Prosperity to Completing the Building of a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects.” Contemporary Social Science 3: 12-18.

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