Hu Jintao's official morality - a list of eight do's and don't's - was unveiled during the meeting of parliament that ended this week. It aims to douse the excesses of China's 27-year-old economic boom with a bucket of cold virtue.

Hu's virtues are blandly apolitical, with none of the radical vigour of founding communist leader Mao Zedong, who declared: "Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun."

And a far cry from then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic declaration at the launch of economic reforms: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white; it is a good cat as long as it catches mice."

On Wednesday, the aphorisms were issued on a poster - plain, black Chinese characters above a photo of the Great Wall.

Hu's virtues add to efforts by communist leaders to assure the public they are fighting rampant corruption and trying to close the widening gap between an elite who have profited from China's economic reforms and the poor majority.

It also appears to be a tentative step toward legacy-building for Hu, who is general secretary of the ruling Communist Party and was appointed to the largely ceremonial post of president in 2003.

Hu's virtue list

  • Love, do not harm the motherland.
  • Serve, don't disserve the people.
  • Uphold science; don't be ignorant & unenlightened.
  • Work hard; don't be lazy and hate work.
  • Be united and help each other; don't gain benefits at the expense of others.
  • Be honest and trustworthy, not profit-mongering at the expense of your values.
  • Be disciplined and law-abiding instead of chaotic and lawless.
  • Know plain living and hard struggle, do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

Hu joins a centuries-long list of Chinese leaders who tried, usually in vain, to mold public and official behaviour with poetic maxims.

"In our socialist society we must not allow the boundaries to be blurred when it comes to right and wrong, evil and kindness, beauty and ugliness," Hu said during a 4 March parliamentary seminar on his virtues.

"What we support, what we resist, what we oppose and what we promote all must be crystal clear." 

He said his "socialist concept of honour and disgrace" should be promoted to the masses, especially young people.

But countering lawlessness and greed with phrases extolling plain living is like trying to put the genie of economic reform back in the bottle, says one China watcher.

"The overwhelming majority of Chinese people don't want to go back to the simple life. They want the good life like the people in the cities have," said Merle Goldman, author of the book From Comrade to Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China.

The official Xinhua News Agency hailed it as "a perfect amalgamation of traditional Chinese values and modern virtues".

"It shows that the party has become aware that earlier campaigns were not having much of an impact on the youth," said novelist Zhang Kangkang, a delegate to parliament's main noncommunist advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

"They have chosen to use very neutral language, very apolitical language, to get the message across."