Leaders are fond of declaring lofty ideals, say analysts, but their words mean little
When President Hu Jintao made a surprise visit to Guangdong at the height of the Sars outbreak in April 2003, few expected the trip would have a lingering impact on national politics.
Apart from trying to shore up crumbling public confidence in the face of the deadly epidemic, Mr Hu talked about seeking more balanced economic and social development that was comprehensive, co-ordinated and sustainable.
His remarks - made five months after he officially took power and later dubbed the 'scientific concept of development' - have today become a catchphrase for the leadership and a household phrase.
Along with Mr Hu's other catch-all slogan - 'building a harmonious society' - it looks set to be enshrined in the Communist Party charter at the end of the 17th National Congress next week.
Analysts are largely divided over how to interpret the theoretical concepts and their political significance, but they agree on one thing: they will remain Mr Hu's watchwords for at least another five years.
Each generation of Communist leaders, from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, has managed to articulate its own political philosophies, not only to consolidate the leaders' grip on power but also to secure their legacy, according to analysts.
Mr Hu will be no exception. The inscription of his pet slogans into the party constitution, which has been revised more than a dozen times in the party's 86-year history, would put Mr Hu on the same level as his immediate predecessor.
Mr Jiang, 81, retired in 2002 but still wields considerable influence over the current leadership.
Compared with Mr Jiang, whose obscure 'Three Represents' theory was only recognised towards the end of his 13-year rule, at the 16th Party Congress, the elevation of Mr Hu, 65, into the Communist pantheon appears rather smooth.
But like Mr Jiang - and unlike Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory - Mr Hu is not expected to be inscribed by name, a sign that China continues to drift away from strongman politics towards a consensus-based collective leadership.
Formulated in February 2000 by the ideologically driven Mr Jiang, the Three Represents was aimed at expanding the party's popular support and broadening its base from representing only workers and peasants to include private entrepreneurs.
It sparked controversy and opposition within the party, with Maoists and leftists charging that the theory changed the nature of the party towards capitalism.
Dogged by the question 'Who's Hu?' when he emerged from Mr Jiang's shadow to become the country's president and party chief, Mr Hu has asserted his position and tightened his grip on power by introducing a raft of sometimes cliched but less controversial slogans in the past five years.
His slogans have included 'people first', 'new socialist countryside', 'innovation-oriented nation', 'conservation economy', 'building a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity' and 'mind emancipation'.
However, many propaganda slogans embodying the country's traditional values and moral teachings have not exactly been Mr Hu's invention, analysts note. One example is the 'Eight Honours and Eight Disgraces'. Mr Hu put forward this slogan last year in an attempt to launch a moral crusade among cadres and woo his critics and the public amid widespread public dissatisfaction over Beijing's ineffective campaign against rampant official corruption.
Zhu Lijia, of the National School of Administration, said the 'scientific concept of development' was put forward against a backdrop of widespread power shortages, an appalling waste of resources, worsening environmental degradation, and bickering between central and local governments.
The concept stressed sustainable development and the importance of balancing economic growth and ecological conservation. It marked an important shift away from a decades-old policy, under Deng and Mr Jiang, of pursuing economic growth at any cost, according to Liu Junning, a political analyst based in Beijing.
It also sought to rectify long-standing policies and pursue more balanced development between the affluent southeast and the less developed central and western regions.
Professor Liu said 'building a harmonious society' was a response to the existence of so many 'acutely unharmonious factors' and mounting social woes in recent years, which had caused grass-roots unrest.
Professor Zhu said: 'While 'scientific development' emphases fairness and equality in economic growth, 'social harmony' essentially means enlisting public support for the government and reducing income disparities to ease social tension.'
He noted the new slogans were introduced to tackle major obstacles affecting people's livelihoods and socioeconomic development underscored by a widening gap between the rich and the poor, corruption, pollution and inadequate government spending on education and health care since 2002.
'But the government has yet to demonstrate they are not just slogans,' Professor Zhu said, adding that the biggest challenge remained how to practise what the leadership was preaching. 'The credibility of the government should be assessed by the masses; it cannot be improved by simply putting forward new slogans and theories.'
He said it had long been a tradition for Chinese rulers to present lofty ideals. 'But due to the lack of the backing of a sound political and economic system, many have never been put into practice, let alone been realised.'
Professor Zhu said he believed the party congress would make progress in accelerating the stalled reform of the political system to meet the party's pledges on balanced development, social harmony and curbing official corruption.
'It is obvious that official corruption remains at the top of the list of public complaints. If the government is not able to root out corruption, there will be no stability or social harmony,' he said.
'It is about time for the authorities to tackle various vested interests. Otherwise, people's confidence in government will be further eroded and eventually lost.'
Professor Zhu warned that leaders must remain sober-minded to escape the dynastic cycle of rise and fall seen repeatedly throughout the country's long history.
He said mainland society would reach a dangerous threshold in about 10 years' time, when per capita GDP reached US$5,000, with international studies casting doubt on the existing political system's capacity to support the country's development after this threshold is reached.
'We must have the sense of urgency and push ahead with reforms.'
Effective public supervision and checks and balances, tougher punishment and the direct election of representatives to people's congresses at all levels would be key to realising the authorities' pledge to build a clean and efficient government.
'Political reforms will be high on the party's agenda after the national gathering, given its aspiration for a harmonious and well-off society,' Professor Zhu said.
But many are far from convinced.
Analysts pointed out that slogans such as the scientific concept of development and social harmony remain abstract theories and remote goals, with little impact on reality.
The country's environmental degradation had gone from bad to worse, with severe pollution in major waterways, densely populated regions sprouting across the mainland and an increasing number of pollution-triggered protests reported.
Although Beijing has made embarrassing admissions about its failure to honour its commitments to slash energy consumption and curb pollution since last year, rather than encouraging much needed supervision, its prescription has been to stall further announcements of related statistics.
The popular green GDP accounting project, aimed at showing a true picture of the country's environmental degradation and once endorsed by Mr Hu, has been shelved indefinitely due to fierce local opposition and bureaucratic wrangling.
There may be another, more discouraging reason: the truth is too stark to face. A preliminary calculation found the environmental costs of the country's sizzling growth in 2004 hit more than 510 billion yuan, or 3 per cent of GDP.
Analysts also noted that some of the often specious slogans had served as excuses for the authorities to harm public interest and clamp down on dissent and media freedom in the name of maintaining stability and social harmony.
Peking University law professor He Weifang said the so-called new political thinking was more like a sack wrapped in fancy but ambiguous slogans. 'No one actually knows what's in it,' he said.
He noted that the phrasing of the policies, though enticing at first glance, was often too obscure to be understood. Words like 'scientific', the meaning of which had yet to be specified, had been 'widely misused in propaganda slogans without any concrete steps towards implementation'.
Professor Liu said the concept of social harmony was irrelevant if people were kept in the dark about the authorities' true intentions. 'It does not mean much because Mao Zedong also talked much about harmony. The key is how to achieve the goal: by allowing different voices and including different interest groups or by eliminating dissent and opposition, like Mao did,' he said.
Analysts also doubted that Mr Hu's slogans would have any lasting impact on the country.
'What has happened over the past few years is more telling than those teachings,' Professor He said. 'Never before have we seen a wider gap between rhetoric and reality than in the past few years.'
A Beijing resident put it more bluntly. 'We ordinary citizens do not like so many fancy ideas. If the government can stick to one good policy and not make changes whenever officials are reshuffled, we will feel more reassured.'
The Eight Honours and Disgraces
Love the country, do it no harm;
Serve the people, never betray them;
Follow science, discard superstition;
Be diligent, not indolent;
Be united, help each other, make no gains at others' expense;
Be honest and trustworthy, do not sacrifice ethics for profit;
Be disciplined and law-abiding, not chaotic and lawless;
Live plainly, work hard, do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.