In what has come as a surprise to many analysts, both domestic and foreign, Chinese economic growth has been recorded at only 7.7% in the first quarter of 2013. Whilst a 7.7% growth rate is hardly to be sniffed at and, indeed, would result in exultation for any European economy, it falls short of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) own prediction of 8%.
China often predicts a growth rate of 8% or thereabouts and for a simple reason; eight is the country’s lucky number. Its pronunciation sounds strikingly similar to the word meaning wealth generation and it has historically been linked with prosperity.
Chinese culture, its myths and legends, are rife with references to the number eight. For example, Shaolin Kung Fu, first recorded during the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century, has eight fighting styles. The Shaolin Monks, the first practicioners of the noble art, are revered for their discipline in Chinese society. Tianyuan, a Shaolin leader of the sixteenth century, is even recorded by the geographer Zheng Ruoceng as defeating eight rival monks from Hangzhou and thus preserving the elite status of his temple.
There are also the Eight Immortals, a group of legendary saints revered both by Taoists and secular Chinese. Fighters of evil, and carrying names such as Iron Crutch and Royal Uncle, the Eight Immortals are commemorated in shrines across the country. It is no surprise that the benevolent group numbers eight.
Even the War of the Eight Princes, a semi-legendary period of anarchy and internecine conflict during the third and fourth centuries, has been popularised as a starting point for the modern Chinese state and the Sinicization of the whole country that we know as China today.
The symbolic importance of the number eight has been reinjected into Chinese society over the past few years. As well as being linked to economic growth and the continuing prosperity of the Chinese people, it has been used as a political tool of socialist obedience. In March 2006, former Secretary-General of the CCP, Hu Jintao, published his ‘Socialist Concepts on Honours and Disgraces’. This list of eight has since been popularised as the ‘Eight Honours and Eight Disgraces’.
Again, the significance of selecting eight honours and disgraces cannot be overestimated. By selecting the number of greatest importance in Chinese culture, Hu was hoping to encourage people to seek prosperity by obeying the following simple rules:
1. Love the country; do it no harm.
2. Serve the people; never betray them.
3. Follow science; discard ignorance.
4. Be diligent; not indolent.
5. Be united, help each other; make no gains at others’ expense.
6. Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethics for profit.
7. Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless.
8. Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.
So, how to become prosperous as a Chinese citizen? Put your faith in the country’s symbolic number and follow Hu’s eight commands.
Even the Beijing Olympics began at 8:08 on the 8th August 2008…And Michael Phelps won eight gold medals.
Trying to maintain a growth rate of 8% is therefore an important national statement that China is bringing prosperity to its people. Of course, there is little difference between 7.7% and 8% growth in real terms – and the CCP have in the past been accused of manipulating economic data for purposes of prestige – but should growth continue to fall below 8% it may awaken some of the Chinese population to the potentially dire consequences of their country’s rapid economic expansion. Income inequality, environmental degradation, social dislocation, political repression. These symptoms are bubbling under the surface of Chinese society whose burgeoning middle-class, enlightened by access to social media sites, covert news sources and Western education, are beginning to take note.
If the number eight disappears from the economic chart over the next few years, what will it say about the prosperity of Chinese society? Maybe then the people will decide that real change is needed.