(jumping into the sea [of commerce])
Social concept
From 1985, when the late Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping was alleged to have informed the masses that ‘to get rich is glorious’, the post-Mao, state capitalist phase of the revolution was identified as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. The annual Gross Domestic Product grew markedly throughout the 1980s and the national economy boasted annual increments of up to 12 per cent. At roughly the same time, the Wall Street Journal produced an entire supplement devoted to China’s ‘economic miracle’ and the bright prospects for foreign investment. By the late 1980s, even as the Chinese government and private entrepreneurs inked a historic number of joint-venture agreements with Western enterprises, domestic economic triumphalism was undermined by political dissent that culminated in the protests at Tiananmen Square in May and June 1989. Indeed, following the 4 June Massacre (Liusi), the events of which were broadcast to hundreds of millions worldwide, China found that foreign investment in its rapid development virtually dried up and the economy stagnated. Although many Japanese and Taiwanese investors returned after a few weeks or months, economic growth was stifled through 1990 and 1991; domestic despair threatened, as the government remained an international pariah.
As he did in 1985, Deng confronted the problem head on through political ritual and rhetoric, by embarking on his now celebrated ‘Nanxun’ or ‘Southern Tour’, strengthened by his belief that China was like ‘red meat’ for the hungry foreign investor. With his faithful daughter Deng Maomao at his side, Deng was nearly ninety when he travelled south in February 1992 to reinvigorate the national spirit for profit. He was said to have exhorted the masses he encountered ‘to be more audacious’, to take the rapacious commercial transformation of Shenzhen as the model, and renew their commitment to the prosperity juggernaut by xiahai—going overboard for profit, ‘jumping into the sea of commerce’, or ‘going entrepreneurial’. There was in the unabashed quality of this recommendation a vestige of the perilous voluntarism of Mao Zedong’s canon of revolutionary praxis, Shixing lun [On Practice], where human agency is pushed to the brink—‘a fall in the pit is a leap in your wit’. Except for Deng’s grandiose exhortation the outcome was not vague, but assured. From 1992 forward, in a curious parallel trajectory with the United States’ decade of IPO excess and over-inflated dot.com stock options, xiahai assumed linguistic prominence as the colloquial reference for individual pursuit of profit of the getihu (private household), as many Chinese left the security of state-owned enterprise work to set up private business. Xiahai quickly became, and has endured as, China’s cultural icon of excess unconstrained by law, becoming the mantra of both township enterprise and the regional party cadre. The Party-sanctioned abandon of ‘going overboard’ turned the phrase into an inexorable law of profit to which even the contemporary intelligentsia and university professors succumbed, as signalled in other popular variants such as wenren xiahai (‘literati jump into the sea’ or ‘cast a line out on the sea’), with many taking private employment as cab drivers, restaurateurs and salespeople to supplement the insufficiently remunerative employment of university positions.
Now, a long decade beyond Deng’s travels in the south, xiahai stands for the national maximization of self-interest consequent upon the collapse of the Party’s once persuasive ethical dictates and the exigent, wildly democratic demands for spending and acquiring derived from popular worship of the commodity form, and its concomitant obliteration of the prospects for democratic reform.
See also: intellectuals and academics; 4 June esprit; Southern Excursion Talks (Deng Xiaoping, 1992)

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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