Xi Jinping rolled out his new slogan of “common prosperity” with great fanfare in 2021, using it to declare inequality a “major political issue” that would not be permitted to worsen further. The term was written into the five-year plan, highlighted in major speeches, and constantly promoted in state media. Common prosperity looked like one of the key concepts that would govern Chinese policy in Xi Jinping’s third term.
Yet the slogan of the moment is almost completely missing from the government’s official policy agenda for 2022, at least as it is presented in the documents for the annual legislative session that got underway this weekend. Premier Li Keqiang’s government work report, for instance contains exactly one mention of common prosperity (共同富裕), which is rendered as “prosperity for all” in the official English translation. And it’s a pretty generic statement:
We must act on the people-centered development philosophy and rely on the efforts of everyone to promote prosperity for all, so as to keep realizing the people’s aspirations for a better life.
The Ministry of Finance’s budget report also contains exactly one mention of common prosperity, which is simply a note of a provincial initiative: “We supported Zhejiang in be coming a leader in the exploration of new ways to promote common prosperity through public finance at the provincial level.” But the budget sets no goals for the central government relating to common prosperity, which is a bit strange as the Ministry of Finance would be in charge of any changes in taxes or spending to narrow income inequality.
The National Development & Reform Commission, the super-ministry that coordinates much economic policy and planning, seems to be taking the slogan more seriously: its annual development report does mention common prosperity a few times, and calls it a “major goal”. But the priority does not seem particularly high: common prosperity is listed as the last of the 10 tasks for its work in 2022, as an umbrella term for improving public services:
With a correct understanding of the main goal of common prosperity and the way to reach it, we will do everything possible within our means to constantly improve public services and resolve issues affecting the wellbeing of the general public.
This is all a bit puzzling coming after the massive propaganda push for common prosperity in 2021. It seemed reasonable to think of common prosperity as one of the planks in Xi’s “re-election campaign” for the 20th Party Congress later in 2022. He could argue that one of the reasons why it is important and necessary for him to have a third term is so that he can deliver common prosperity and solve the problem of inequality. Therefore I expected the messaging around common prosperity to ramp up this year, and get more specific and ambitious over time. Instead, it has turned more low-key.
Partly I think this reflects some of the incoherence that has been part of this slogan from the beginning. The rhetoric of common prosperity has simultaneously featured a call for revolutionary change and a denial that any fundamental change to China’s system is needed. As I wrote in an earlier contribution to a CSIS discussion on common prosperity:
It is remarkable how much of the official discussion of common prosperity consists of listing the things that cannot and should not change. Xi states that the common prosperity campaign cannot be allowed to hurt incentives for entrepreneurship, innovation, and hard work, nor can it be the occasion for the government to make “promises that cannot be fulfilled.” In other words, Xi is going out of his way not to promise a “new deal” for Chinese citizens, even though he has pledged to increase transfers to lower-income regions, adjust taxation, and boost the level of public benefits. There is thus something of a mismatch between common prosperity’s very broad political goals and the constrained policy instruments available to achieve them.
These contradictions make it hard to propose specific policies that would actually achieve the objectives of common prosperity, and even to articulate concrete objectives in the first place. That’s why I think common prosperity is more of a political campaign of gestures and symbolism than a technocratic economic agenda. Barry Naughton’s take is probably even more cynical than mine; as he said at UCLA event in February:
As a first approximation, the role that ordinary working people have in the Chinese Communist Party’s policy formulation is zero, and this is not an overture to them. It’s an effort to do two one things: one is to slap down this new capitalist elite and tell them you should know your place, and it’s not at the top, and the other is to put together a nice program that sounds good going into the 20th Party Congress.
So one interpretation of the recent downplaying of common prosperity could be that the rhetoric is simply collapsing under the weight of its own internal problems and difficulties. Yet I don’t think we’ve seen the end of common prosperity: the government is still pledged to deliver a plan for common prosperity, a process that will force it to articulate a somewhat more coherent agenda. The NDRC’s approach suggests that will center around improving the social safety net, an objective with plenty of political support.
Xi himself has certainly not abandoned the term; in a meeting during the legislative session, he said “As long as we consistently follow the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, we will be able to continue to realize the people’s aspirations for a better life and continue to advance the common prosperity of all people.” I’d expect Xi to still use the common prosperity slogan prominently in his speeches around the Party Congress.
A different, though not incompatible, interpretation would be that the political context for this slogan has changed more than originally expected. Common prosperity probably made sense as a slogan during the triumphalist year of 2021, when China’s growth was strong and long-term goals seemed within reach, but perhaps makes less sense during the worrisome year of 2022, when growth is sliding and the world is in turmoil.
Xi Jinping’s most prominent public remarks at the legislative session this week have focused food and energy security, themes he has long favored but which now have much greater resonance as oil and commodity prices spiral upward. As Li Keqiang said in his work report, in a classic piece of understatement, “this year our country will encounter many more risks and challenges.” Common prosperity probably needs to go on the back burner for a bit while leaders deal with more urgent short-term concerns.