The China Dream – 2

Chinese politics may be entering one of those intriguing periods. This monthly post tracks the development around President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” since July 10, 2013, and responds to the comments by William Callahan and Gilbert Rozman.

I agree with Callahan that there are different China dreams and Xi’s “China Dream” evolved partly from the previous value debates in China. Callahan saw a stronger continuity between Xi’s seemingly new idea and the previous Chinese thinking than I did. I focused more on those who treated the “China Dream” as a central theme. It would be fascinating to learn how Xi came to adopt the “China Dream” phrase and whose earlier writings had inspired him.

Rozman noted rightly that Xi’s “China Dream” is embedded in the larger Chinese discussion related to national identity, which has vital implications for Chinese foreign policy. Rozman pointed out three scenarios for future historians: the “China Dream” as a slogan that lost relevance over time; the China dream as an inspiration similar to the “American Dream”; and the “China Dream” as “the opening wedge in the reconstruction of a distinctive Chinese ideology with wide-ranging ramifications for national identity.” I will bring evidence to bear on these scenarios in this post while recognizing that any conclusion is necessarily tentative since we are watching history as it is unfolding.

China’s domestic politics is the focus in this post since there has been no major shift in foreign policy. My observation is that invocation of the term “China Dream” by senior leaders, including Xi himself, has decreased sharply. Xi appears to be facing resistance to his party rectification campaign and economic reform measures, and he is adapting by associating more strongly with Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening policy. Moreover, by mid-July Xi seemed to be laying the foundation for his own political theory.

Jiang Zemin spoke up

The Chinese official media reported on July 22 that former president Jiang Zemin had hosted a casual gathering for Henry Kissinger and his family on July 3. Jiang was quoted as praising Xi as a “very capable, very wise state leader.”1 Rumors abound about why Jiang resurfaced at this point. Did Xi permit this high publicity for a 19-day old story to utilize Jiang’s endorsement to quell dissent or did Jiang resurface to send a signal to Xi that he still mattered and his interests should be respected? Heightened interest in rumors typically reflects heightened tensions in elite CCP politics. Without being able to verify one rumor or another, I focus on what has actually been reported in the Chinese media.

Most members of the Politburo Standing Committee have not received media coverage since the end of July, leading to speculation that they might be in Beidaihe, a summer resort outside Beijing,2 where every summer, current and retired senior Chinese leaders gather for vacation and an exchange of views. The key topics this summer might include the trial of Bo Xilai, a disgraced former Politburo member, and the Central Committee meeting to be held probably in October.

Xi Jinping may well encounter greater resistance than expected. Ambitious though he has been, he is facing challenges difficult for any leader, such as systemic corruption, social protests, and economic slowdown. There is little evidence that he is interested in anything but “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but he has indicated his intention to crack down hard on corruption and to push for change in the growth model, both of which affect the vested interests of officials. Without acting on corruption and the growth model, the CCP would face even greater social protests. Xi is between a rock and a hard place.

Remember the China Dream?

Where does the China dream fit in this? There is some evidence supporting Rozman’s first scenario that the “China Dream” is merely a slogan that would lose relevance over time. It has already lost some shine among the top leaders for the past month. To confirm that casual observation, I conducted a key word search on the name of each Politburo Standing Committee and the term “China Dream” on July 24 and August 13, using the search engines of Google and Baidu. There was indeed a significant drop in invoking it. Even when their names were associated with the concept, this was mostly done by the Chinese media rather than by themselves. Even Xi himself has not said as much since early July. Premier Li Keqiang has said the least, raising questions about his relations with Xi.

It is reasonable to assume that Xi’s assertion of personal authority, as represented by the “China Dream,” would raise alarm for the other senior leaders, who should logically prefer group leadership to Mao-like charisma. There is also much speculation about various leaders manipulating the message of the “China Dream” to advance their own interests or the interests of the apparatus under their control. It is too early to tell whether the “China Dream” will end up as an empty slogan or failed inspiration. The “China Dream” came from a top leader at the start of his leadership term, who would presumably make efforts to prevent such an outcome. The less frequent invocation of the concept by top leaders might be temporary and not indicative of Xi’s declining influence. His slogan remains relevant if he still is foremost in setting the agenda. Xi continues to push his party rectification campaign, focusing on the mass line strategy. As an indication of his control, the other six members of the Standing Committee also conducted their own on-site studies, showing how they exemplified the mass line working style.3 And the Chinese propaganda apparatus continues to publicize the “China Dream.” A collection of Xi’s speeches has just been published. On July 29, Xi visited the Beijing Military Region, not unlike Mao and Deng who both understood the importance of the military command that guards the capital. On July 30, Xi chaired a Politburo meeting on the economic situation.

Xi continues to demonstrate his leadership; so the “China Dream” is not fading away. If people started talking about the “quieting down” of the “China Dream,” Xi and his supporters might kick up another gear just to avoid showing signs of weakness. The other top leaders might also make greater efforts to give Xi face. More important, Xi seems to be moving up the theoretical ladder as will be discussed in the following paragraphs. Thus, we should view Rozman’s three scenarios as not mutually exclusive. The “China Dream” appeared to be treated as inspirational before attention started flagging, although we have no strong reason to think that it would inspire people in a meaningful manner. It is more likely that the slogan will become the opening wedge of a new ideology to maintain Xi and CCP political dominance.

I too have a theory

The “China Dream” is a slogan. At least, for now it falls far short of becoming a theory. It would be awkward to list it after Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the “Three Represents” and the “Scientific Development Outlook.” Yet, Xi seems to be laying the foundation for one, asserting that a sound theory for guiding the country should come from the actual experience of Chinese development on the ground. On July 23, meeting the leaders of several provinces and cities in Wuhan, Xi emphasized the importance of comprehensive reform and raised “six research questions” related to reform, namely market system, economic system, macro-management, social dynamism, justice, and party organization. He also singled out “five big relationships” related also to reform, particularly the relationship between maintaining stability and deepening reform.4

Xi has made extra efforts to link himself with Deng Xiaoping’s reform, seemingly rejecting the widespread impression that he was a Maoist. His emerging theoretical thinking is a synthesis of Mao and Deng, reflecting on the sixty-year plus PRC history. Xi is exploring his political theory as the intellectual debate over constitutionalism, a new front in old debates about China’s political future, which is heating up and when social protests continue to mount. How Xi’s political theory will evolve and how the “China Dream” will fit in that theoretical framework is difficult to predict. I doubt that Xi himself knows at this point how the drama will end.

1. China News Agency, July 22, 2013, July 23, 2013).

2. Liu Yunshan, who is in charge of the propaganda apparatus, reportedly reappeared in Beijing, hosting a party center meeting to implement the party rectification campaign on August 14. Xinhua News Agency, August 14, 2013, (accessed August 15, 2013). Liu had been reported at an activity in Beidaihe in early August. His return to Beijing could mean the end of the Beidaihe vacation and meetings season.

3. Xinhua News Agency, July 16, 2013, (accessed July 16, 2013).

4. Xinhua News Agency, July 24, 2013,; China News Agency, July 25, 2013, (accessed August 13, 2013).


Editorial Staff with the permission of Zheng Wang

On August 15 in China-US Focus, Zheng Wang and Elizabeth Barrett wrote “Lessons for the Chinese Dream.” This response to Ming Wang draws on their discussion with Zheng Wang’s encouragement.

The thrust of their presentation is a comparison of the “American Dream,” disagreeing with Thomas Friedman’s characterization of it in the New York Times, with the “China Dream.” They emphasize that the “American Dream,” while varying across generations, is not only about materialism, but also about social mobility and openness to the outside world. While Zheng Wang and Barrett note a decline in US mobility and indications of unfairness in Chinese mobility, they draw a much sharper contrast on openness, arguing that China is even tightening access to overseas Chinese. They conclude that instead of becoming a more closed society, China can learn lessons from the “American Dream” to open its doors wider to citizens of other countries.

Xi Jinping has centered his remarks about the “China Dream” on what is exclusive to China. Commentaries in Chinese sources have reinforced this point. Given the hostile attitude toward universal values, suggesting overlap with the “American Dream,” let alone convergence of dreams, such as in the realization of the once-heralded vision of the “East Asian community,” is absent. In 2009-2012, sharp distinctions were being drawn in Chinese publications between Chinese civilization and other civilizations, especially that of the West. The “China Dream” discourse is only reemphasizing this divergence, even incompatibility, with the outside world. It flies in the face of claims of a “harmonious world,” because it pays no heed to narrowing differences that cause disharmony.

The “East Asian community” was an aspiration of ASEAN + 3 through the 2000s. As a study group envisioned, networks were established to bring it to fruition. Joint textbooks on history, sister-city and cross-border associations, and boosterism by idealists strove to give meaning to this aspiration. Some blamed Japan’s penchant for historical revisionism for scuttling these projects. Yet, even more serious was disinterest in China in pursuing an “East Asian Dream.” Demonization of Japan reached far beyond the historical themes associated with that country’s revisionism. Vilification of cultural failings extended to South Korea. Earlier praise for the “ASEAN Way” and the prospect of finding cultural common ground with Southeast Asian states, as a group, gave way to chastising these states for cultural causes of distrust in China or even seeing a “China threat.” Where in the “China Dream” discourse do we find any interest in reversing these negative trends?

The “American Dream” often has arrogantly assumed that the US way of life and culture are superior, proving irresistible to those who gain access to them. Only more recently has multiculturalism created room for considering other outlooks viable in combination with something inherently American or admirable as they join in accepting universal values. Denying the existence of universal values and even values that could serve as a shared basis for the “East Asian community,” the “China Dream” is a throwback to a narrow national identity. So far, it is not a basis for expanding China’s “soft power.”

Fei-Ling Wang

People dream, so do governments. Often synonymous with visions, inspirations, and ideals, dreams can also be just fantasies, even hallucinations. Individually and collectively, the Chinese people have had countless dreams of all kinds for eons. The relatively short history of the PRC has had more than its share of collective dreams, often imposed with massive consequences. Some, such as the Maoist utopia of reengineering the minds of hundreds of millions of people, could easily rank among the grandest of all human dreams. Others, like the delirium of the “Great Leap Forward” or “Cultural Revolution,” are simply some of the worst nightmares that humankind has ever lived through.

The latest official dream, the “China Dream” (Zhongguo meng), tells a great deal about the new leadership presiding over a country that rises and changes quickly. As many other slogans coming from the very top, the “China Dream” is not just revealing, but could also be consequential, deserving careful scrutiny. However, despite the fact that President Xi Jinping himself has “already systematically elaborated” on the concept in no fewer than fifteen speeches and articles over only a few months, according to People’s Daily,1 this dream is still subject to interpretation and speculation. It is a treat, therefore, to read here in the Asan Forum Ming Wan’s analysis.

As Wan convincingly points out, this is an appeal to the statist and nationalist (patriotic) emotions of the Chinese elite for the longstanding core interest of safeguarding the one-party political system in the name of “CCP-led socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It draws heavily from the official narrative of Chinese history to transfigure the CCP, which has been largely communist in name only for a while, to be the sole guardian of the millennia-old Chinese civilization with an indisputable and irreplaceable mandate to lead the Chinese people in an infinite Long March to restore Chinese power and glory in the world. In fact, Xi’s predecessors from Mao Zedong to Hu Jintao have all shared the same aspiration—a grand dream to govern a great power and command a mighty military (qiangguo meng or daguo meng and qiangjun meng). Indeed, Hu Jintao summarized it rather succinctly as “rich country, strong military” (fuguo qiangjun), essentially the same dream as the Meiji Restoration Japanese leaders’ fukoku kyohei. It is not surprising, therefore, to notice that the implications of such a “China Dream” appear to neighbors and rivals, the United States included, more like a worrisome warning than a soothing sermon about what will be forthcoming from the rising PRC power.

The “China Dream” is now sometimes equated to the “American Dream” for the ordinary Chinese people, implying a sanctioning of the individual pursuit of personal happiness and a better life. Similar to Hu Jintao who championed the goal of hexie (harmony), Xi’s “China Dream,” as Ming Wan mentions, could be perceived as a dream for all, becoming self-defeating, in that it may energize the Chinese people to dream and even act out their own individual wishes, which would necessarily weaken and undermine the one-party authoritarian regime Xi wants to strengthen. It is intended as one unifying statist “China Dream,” but may end up fomenting many diverse populist Chinese dreams. How to manage those Chinese dreams without democracy and the rule of law remains an epic challenge that will determine the fate of the PRC and the CCP.

The “China Dream is expected to be added to the lexicon of the CCP’s patchwork official belief system, listed together with Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents, and Scientific Development. It seems to represent a desire to stamp the personal mark of a populist-appearing leader, and also the CCP leadership’s collective wish to update and energize its ideology for easier governance. At this point, the great state-sponsored fanfare (with an intriguing array of different sophistries for the different domestic and international audiences) to promote this rather slogan suggests a strong new effort to rally the now harder-to-command masses in the PRC and despite a poverty of ideas in Beijing. It is a new effort to keep the same old dream alive in China with an ostensibly new embellishment. As English slang would put it, “dream on.”

1. “Xi Zongshuji 15 pian wenzhang xitong chanshu ‘Zhongguo Meng,’” Renmin ribao, June 19, 2013, August 13, 2013).