Laowai Times goes over exactly what is meant by “stability” here. It’s the biggest political catchphrase of the era- so what does it entail?
First, the plain meaning is the maintenance of law and order, or such law and order as China enjoys. Obviously the folk memory of civil war, the Cultural Revolution etc are still strong, and the CPC’s claim to govern is in part based upon its ability to control the fractious, tumultuous Chinese society. There is, even to this still-green observer, an anarchistic streak in the Chinese character: not for them the orderliness of the Japanese or the Germans. Similarly, the relative strength of central government is often overstated, with provincial governments enjoying a lot of leeway to simply ignore laws and regulations which might inhibit economic growth. Thus, “stability” here means the policy of holding China together and ensuring basic laws are obeyed.
Second, tying in with the first point, it’s an admission of the difficulties the government finds itself in. Emphasising “stability” rather than “harmony” is on this level wise, as anyone could otherwise point to the numerous recent protests and the ethnic tensions in Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang. Appealing for stability is the equivalent of a divided political party calling for “unity” – an appeal to stay together, and an admission that things are not good. Why call for stability if you have it?
Third, it’s a cop-out for no political reforms. Hu Jintao will be remembered indeed as the “stability” president because he has introduced no reforms worth mentioning. It’s like every political structure in China has been frozen for fear of tampering with the spell – change anything, and the house of cards might come tumbling down. Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji in comparison were fast-moving radicals, committed to marketisation of China. Hu Jintao has sat on the fence his entire presidency and been happy to assume GDP growth equals success.
But fourth, and this is the main point I want to bring up, stability is a synonym of being fixed or immutable. And this is Hu Jintao’s main political aim in emphasizing stability. The rapid economic growth over the past thirty years has entirely transfigured Chinese society, bringing new classes of entrepreneurs and businessmen (it’s mostly men), non-SOE managers and executives, noveau riche, non-party aligned academics, a (tightly-controlled) media class and so on. As society develops, so new sections of it demand changes to suit their purposes: think of the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie in the UK or the American super-rich or the recent rise of the managerial class throughout western society. This cannot happen in China as it would result in cession of power from the CPC. Stability here means the fixity of class relations. These new classes, therefore, to gain any say in the power structures of China must join the party. This is why membership is rising so rapidly – it’s a substitute for political change.