Happy Year of the Sheep (or is it the Year of the Goat?) to all our China Power readers. Wednesday marked the Lunar New Year celebrations within China and abroad.
President Xi Jinping himself offered a New Year’s speech on Tuesday, wishing a happy New Year to Chinese citizens of every ethnicity, with special greetings for compatriots in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and overseas. More than that, however, Xi’s speech offered his take on the important events of the just-ended Year of the Horse, and his hopes for the coming year.
The previous year was a year of hard work and great successes, Xi said – the opening year of China’s “comprehensively deepening reform.” Within the country, the tasks of reform, development, and maintaining stability were heavy and difficult; the external environment was mercurial. Yet despite these challenges, Xi said, with China’s people united as one heart, the country was able to make progress in a number of priority areas: deepening reform, pushing forward development, improving the people’s welfare, strengthening China’s national defense and armed forces, proactively carrying out diplomatic work, and governing the Chinese Communist Party.
In his speech, Xi stressed both the difficulties and the newness of China’s future. China is beset by not only internal and external challenges, but even challenges from history itself – the project of creating “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has no historical precedent to follow, Xi reminded his listeners. That means the road ahead will not be smooth; China must be prepared to face “great, historic challenges.” Yet despite this, Xi emphasized the centrality of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and urged all Chinese everywhere to band together to help the country overcome the difficulties inherent in creating its own path.
Xi’s emphasis on national unity evolved into a paean to the Chinese ideal notion of family. As Xi points out, Chinese New Year itself is a time of family reunions, evidence that the Chinese people have venerated family since ancient times. And this ideal of family, Xi says, is the bedrock for Chinese society as a whole; thus spreading the “socialist core values” is placed on the same level of importance as developing China’s “traditional family virtues.”
Commentators in China have complained about a values deficit, leading to occasional CCP attempts to select guiding principles (such as the “socialist core values”) to shape its citizens’ morals. In this speech, Xi holds up family virtues as the exemplar of traditional Chinese culture, and a potential guide for navigating the modern world. And in China, the family is often seen as a microcosm of the nation. When Xi extols the virtues of a strong family bond, that ideal of family unity becomes a model for national unity – something the CCP places a premium on. Xi’s repeated emphasis on the need for unity and togetherness in surmounting China’s obstacles has everything to do with his call for valuing family ties. To perfect “socialism with Chinese characteristics” China must unite as one family, Xi is saying.
Bound up in this rhetoric is the traditional Confucian concept of the ruler as a father, with the people as ‘children’ the government is duty-bound to care for. While this provides a rallying ground for national unity, it also imparts certain responsibilities on the government. When Xi urges families to make sure children grow up healthy and elders are cared for, the government shares in this responsibility. That is why economic development continues to feature front-and-center in China’s plans — failing to provide economically for its “children” would jeopardize the CCP’s calls for devotion and commitment.