The China Dream – 1

This is the first monthly posting on President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” campaign. My longer article, published in this journal, provides a broader discussion of the state of affairs related to the China Dream. That article addresses four questions: What the China Dream means, how it reveals Xi’s leadership, what is the chatter on the China Dream inside and outside China, and how that discourse is affecting Chinese domestic and foreign policy. My monthly posts track developments along these lines and address any other questions that may arise, examining the China Dream discourse and related activities since June 1, 2013. Each post selectively focuses on what is most striking in the past month, aware that there are unlikely to be equally important developments on all fronts.

My key observation for the past month is as follows: Xi Jinping and the Chinese government continue to flesh out what they mean by the China Dream, partly in response to foreign curiosity, skepticism, and criticism. Coinciding with Xi’s high-profile visits overseas, we have heard much about the China Dream from him directly and from Chinese officials. What is most fascinating is a divergence in the domestic and international pitches for the China Dream. The China Dream, we are told outside China, is similar to “peaceful development” and to the dreams other countries have, including the American dream. Such a softer touch is not visible inside China however. While there are some hopeful signs for further economic reform, including urbanization reforms and a free trade zone in Shanghai, the official Chinese propaganda outlets are waging strong attacks on the advocates of constitutional governance or constitutionalism, upholding the principle of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) primacy and denying the dreams of liberal intellectuals for political reform. Put simply, we see a clear start of a cynical phenomenon of “one China Dream, two interpretations.”

It is still not clear where Xi stands exactly, as he appears to position himself as a statist above the ideological fray even though most observers view him as conservative politically. I doubt this will change any time soon since it is in his interest to keep his ideological preferences close to his chest to maximize his political maneuverability. Xi continues to consolidate his power and to be confident, enhanced by his lengthy, informal summit with President Obama in early June and by the campaign he later launched to emphasize the so-called “mass line” to strengthen CCP leadership.

Since this post almost coincides with my longer article, I will not engage much in differentiating the Chinese and non-Chinese discourse on the China Dream to avoid overlapping. But one should note that Chinese discourse continues to elevate and expand the notion of the China Dream, furthered by bureaucratic interest in hitching onto the top leader’s boat. Outside China, we will continue to see strong interest for a while, and to the extent that views of China in the West and some Asian countries continue to deteriorate, observers are likely to focus on substantive Chinese policy views and actions, while just assuming that this seemingly all-encompassing slogan serves to guide them.

The Chinese Dream Abroad

In some ways, the China Dream discourse has not changed from before. What became significant was the acceleration of Xi Jinping’s diplomatic activities. Most importantly, Xi visited with Obama at Sunnylands in California on June 7-8, 2013, where the subject of the China Dream arose, as during his other summit meetings. His pitch is that the China Dream is about peaceful development, a win-win situation for all, and it is connected to various other dreams around the world, including the American dream.1

We also hear from other senior Chinese diplomats about the meaning of the China Dream, softening it to a large extent. Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, stated at a forum in Kuala Lumpur on June 4 that the China Dream can only be realized with a stable external environment and with an Asia that is growing together. She emphasized that the China Dream would be beneficial for China’s Asian neighbors in terms of trade, investment, and tourism and that this dream is no different than the dreams of other Asian countries.2 One should expect Chinese public diplomacy portraying a friendly China Dream to continue.

Dream the CCP Dream

Beijing’s diplomatic gesture stands in contrast to a lack of political reform at home, which ultimately weakens its diplomatic message. As a case in point, a Washington Post editorial labeled Beijing’s approach a “two-China policy,” namely “engagement abroad, repression at home.”3 As discussed in my longer article, China’s so-called new-leftists, defined in the Chinese context as those who argue for a CCP-led socialist system, have waged a concerted, strong attack on “constitutionalism,” starting earnestly in late May 2013. Advocates of constitutionalism in China want to make the Chinese constitution above anyone, including the CCP. In response, critics charge that constitutionalism is really meant to end CCP rule and should be strongly opposed.

Xi himself has not said anything about constitutionalism, but he has used some Maoist terminology and tactics such as “the mass line” recently. This term refers to a Maoist tactic to urge the party leaders to be in touch with the common people, which was often a pretext for purging opponents. Xi has just launched a party rectification campaign to root out what he calls the “four winds,” namely formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism, and waste. He clearly sees a cleaner party as central to realizing the China Dream, as social discontent has grown significantly. Yet, as in Mao’s time, the dividing line between adhering to the Party’s ideals, however much they are changing, and demonstrating sufficient loyalty to one’s superiors may be difficult to discern.

To demonstrate that he means business, Xi held a politburo study meeting on June 22-25, 2013. The official CCTV gave the event unusually lengthy coverage, lasting fourteen and a half minutes. The study meeting reportedly included six half-day sessions over four days.4 Watching the CCTV footage of this event, anyone who lived through the Mao era could see the strong connection to Maoist rhetoric and practices. The meeting apparently even included “criticism and self-criticism” sessions. Such sessions used to be routine practice under Mao to enforce party discipline and could be a dangerous minefield during a party rectification campaign. The Xi-led politburo meeting emphasized that improving party leadership would start with each politburo member. To get the message across even more clearly, Xi urged the politburo members to follow the correct party line, socialism with Chinese characteristics. Xi was portrayed as clearly in charge, talking most of the time while other leaders dutifully took notes. He was quoted toward the end as praising the “high quality” meeting and sincere self-evaluations made by the participants, but there should be no doubt that if the rectification continues, some people might be targeted as an example to others. Since most party leaders are, arguably, guilty of the four winds, the surest way to avoid one’s downfall in a party rectification campaign is to side with the top leader. Thus, this campaign should be viewed as partly to enhance Xi’s leadership position, demonstrating again Xi’s confidence and ambition this early in his term.

It is interesting also to note that the CCTV footage mentioned the China Dream only once in the voice of the TV narrator. Chinese media summaries of Xi’s remarks did not include any reference to the China Dream. He invoked socialism with Chinese characteristics as his preferred slogan.5 By contrast, during the study meeting, Xi emphasized the China Dream when he talked with the Chinese astronauts carrying out China’s fifth manned space mission on June 24. He told the astronauts and the entire nation that China’s space dream is part of its strong nation dream.6 Thus, the China Dream appears more and more like an aspiration for the nation and party rank and file, while the top leadership cannot really fool itself with a slogan. As the CCTV coverage of the study meeting made clear, Xi and his lieutenants face huge challenges. It is not yet clear whether Xi will succeed in his ambitions and what he will do if he has quickly consolidated political power. All signs point to a statist Xi leadership leaning conservative politically, but one cannot rule out the possibility that Xi, as a strong leader, may introduce greater economic reform and even limited political reform, given the fact that China has evolved and communications technology has evolved, which requires adjustment in Chinese governance. After all, TV footage on the Chinese politburo study meeting would be inconceivable under Mao, when virtually no Chinese citizens owned their own television sets anyway. The question of whether emphasizing the China Dream is driving rhetoric in a direction contrary to pragmatic reforms will remain at the center of our attention over the coming months.

1. For Chinese analysis of this, see for example Jinghua shibao, June 11, 2013, (accessed June 11, 2013).

2. China News Agency, June 4, 2013, (accessed June 23, 2013).

3. “Two-China Policy: Engagement Abroad, Repression at Home,” The Washington Post, June 11, 2013, A14.

4. CCTV, June 26, 2013, (accessed on June 26, 2013).

5. See also Xinhua News Agency, June 26, 2013, (accessed June 26, 2013).

6. Xinhua News Agency, June 24, 2013, (accessed June 24, 2013).



We have had two responses on the “China Dream,” following Ming Wan’s Topics of the Month initial statement and coinciding with the distribution of his background article in the Open Forum. Other responses are welcome after the August 23 second author’s statement and in time for distribution on September 6.

Observers around the globe are curious about the meaning of Xi Jinping’s invocation of the “China Dream.” They are following, as Ming Wan does, how the term is used by China’s leaders and explained by its officials. Many are striving to put it in the context of policy decisions since the term was introduced by Xi. William Callahan in his response widens the intellectual context, suggesting that there are multiple dreams from which Xi appears to be drawing. Gilbert Rozman’s response focuses on the national identity context, arguing that there are multiple dimensions of identity that comprise the basis of the “China Dream.” Both writers broaden the perspective for assessing the real significance of a concept that Xi has been reluctant to specify.

In the long run, people will look back on the “China Dream” in one of three ways. First, it could prove to be little more than a footnote in history, similar to the concepts of “harmonious society” and “harmonious world” introduced by Hu Jintao. They were left without specific meaning and served the narrow goal of projecting an image of theoretical innovation and soft power advocacy by China’s leadership. As Chinese writers grasped to give meaning to the concepts, they turned to historical antecedents, foreign policy manifestations, and political rationalizations. Not much of substance materialized, while Hu failed to elaborate, as people grew dubious.

Second, the “China Dream” could become inspirational, as the “American Dream” did after the Second World War. It could project China as a beacon for its world leadership, basic values, and vision for both a domestic and international community. This requires a coterie of idealists prepared to articulate the promise of this dream, inspiring others to agree. Yet, there is no sign that Xi Jinping has such inspirational intentions or that Chinese authors are interpreting it in this fashion. This possibility cannot be ruled out, but we have no reason at present to take it seriously.

Third, the “China Dream” may become the opening wedge in the reconstruction of a distinctive Chinese ideology with wide-ranging ramifications for national identity. It would serve to contrast China with the outside world, especially the West, insisting on China’s superiority. Ming Wan offers some clues as to how this may be occurring. We will be following his updates to see if the evidence for this outcome is growing.

The Two Respondents

Bill Callahan is professor of international politics and China studies at the University of Manchester. His recent book, China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future, provides important background for appreciating discussions about the “China Dream.” In the past two years Gilbert Rozman has edited two books concerning Chinese national identity that can serve as background as well. See East Asian National Identities: Common Roots and Chinese Exceptionalism, and National Identities and Bilateral Relations: Widening Gaps in East Asia and Chinese Demonization of the United States.

The Challenge

In exchanging views about the “China Dream,” we strive to understand not only what is being said about it, but also its deeper significance for where China is heading. Given the fact that Xi Jinping is expected to lead China for a decade, finding the thrust of his thinking early can be very helpful to observers and policymakers. If China watchers are detecting different clues about Xi’s thinking, an exchange should be useful in airing these differences and interpreting their long-term impact.

William Callahan

Soon after being appointed leader of the Chinese Communist Party last November, Xi Jinping declared that his “China Dream” is to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In March, Xi added details to his slogan: “Fulfilling the China Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must achieve a rich and powerful country, the revitalization of the nation, and the people’s happiness.”

Although it seems like a new idea, Xi’s “China Dream” was actually a response to discussions within China. As he explained: “Right now everyone is also discussing the China Dream, so what is the China Dream?”

The “China Dream,” thus, has an important backstory. Over the past few years there has been a furious debate among China’s public intellectuals about the moral impact of 30 years of economic reform. In other words, the New Left, Conservatives, and Liberals in the PRC are all worried about the moral crisis presented by what they call China’s new “money-worship” society.

Military intellectuals like Gen. Liu Yazhou, Col. Liu Mingfu, and Col. Zhang Wenmu all worry that economic reform has gone too far. They want to rebalance China’s power from civil to military so the PRC can sprint to the finish to become the world’s number one power. In 2010, Col. Liu was one of the first people to popularize “The China Dream” idea in a book by the same name.

New Left economists like Hu Angang argue that economic policy should further strengthen the state over the market. He predicts that by 2020 the PRC will overtake the United States economically, and concludes that by 2030 China will lead a Sinocentric world order that is not only “China’s dream,” but also is the “world’s dream.”

Liberals have China dreams too. Since 2010 the Southern Newspaper Media Group has given out “China Dreamer” awards each year to diplomats, journalists, artists, and writers.

Lung Ying-tai, who became Taiwan’s minister of culture in 2012, was given a China dreamer award in 2010 for her work as a social critic. In her acceptance speech at Peking University, Lung criticized the China dream that celebrates the state’s growing wealth and power. Rather, she hopes that the rise of China will be characterized by “the rise of the power of civility,” where people treat each other with dignity.

This dignity theme was repeated in the Southern Weekend newspaper’s New Year’s editorial in January 2013: “The China Dream, The Dream of Constitutionalism.” It called for legal limits on the power of the party-state, and argued that the quest for human dignity needs to go beyond economic prosperity: “Our dream today cannot possibly end with material things; we seek a spiritual wholeness as well. It cannot possibly end with national strength alone; it must include self-respect for every person … We will continue to dream until every person, whether high official or peddler on the street, can live in dignity.” The editorial concluded that “the real ‘China Dream’ is a dream for freedom and constitutional government.”

Looking closely at Xi Jinping’s speeches and influential articles in the People’s Daily and Seeking Truth magazine, we can see how Xi has adopted certain things from this values debate, while discarding others.

Xi fully endorses the military’s dream of having a strong and powerful nation that relies on a strong military.

On his December trip to Shenzhen—the birthplace of China’s economic reforms—Xi supported further market-friendly reforms. But the bulk of his speeches go in the opposite direction by invoking the nationalist and state-centric ideas of the “China Dream,” the China model, and the China path.

Xi appeals to Chinese citizens as individuals when he declares that the “China Dream” is “the people’s dream, and must rely on the people to achieve it … for benefit of the people.” But actually Xi stresses how the country and the nation have to come first: “Only when the country does well, and the nation does well, can every person do well.”

Hence, Xi’s China dream includes neither Lung Ying-tai’s dream of the power of civility nor Southern Weekend’s appeal to dignity and freedom. Indeed, the Southern Weekend editorial was censored, and then rewritten by the provincial propaganda boss to endorse Xi’s dream of strong state power. Recent official commentaries likewise discuss how the party-state needs to better control “China Dream” discourse through traditional propaganda techniques such as textbooks, films, song contests, and even summer camps.

But the Pandora’s Box is already open. While Xi has been busy defining the “China Dream” as the party-state’s dream, many more people are now thinking about their own personal China dreams. It will be hard enough for Beijing to fulfill the official “China Dream.” The real question is how Xi Jinping will respond to the Chinese people’s 1.3 billion dreams.

Gilbert Rozman

The “China Dream” remains vaguely defined, but in the context of the narrative of recent years about China’s national identity, its meaning becomes clearer. This is not a sharp shift away from the prevailing narrative, but an attempt by a new leadership to encapsulate various themes in one, simple concept that will resonate with the public. Putting this concept in the context of the various dimensions I have been using to analyze national identity sheds more light on what Xi Jinping has in mind.

On the ideological dimension of national identity, I see this as a small step toward the revival of ideology, combining socialism, anti-imperialism, and Sinocentrism. It is this amalgam that was taking shape by 2009-10 without an overarching label. To credit China’s leadership with a dream that overcomes historical humiliation and leads to China’s rejuvenation as the center of its region, if not a wider area, does not revive ideology per se, but it has the potential to do so with socialism in the mix, if not necessarily highlighted as the centerpiece. Tension between the socialist and Sinocentric elements of ideology is a source of uncertainty about the “China Dream.”

On the temporal dimension, the “China Dream” was introduced before an historical exhibition with the clear implication that it is an affirmation of China’s imperial and socialist history combined. Pride in China’s “harmonious” and “revolutionary” past without tolerance for separating the two has been the hallmark of recent writings. If a “dream” is normally understood to be a vision of where one is heading, this notion, in contrast to the utopian dream of communism, rests largely on an affirmation of China’s past. Rejecting criticisms, this is an assertive claim to a bright future on the basis of a glorious past. This melds together socialism and the Confucian legacy.

As for the sectoral dimension of political, economic, and cultural national identity, to claim a “state-centric” dream rooted in China’s culture with economic success well understood to be the force that makes it possible, is to confirm identity trends of the period since the global financial crisis. In this sense, I see the “China Dream” as consistent with, if more wide-ranging than, the China model. It also implies that for China universal values are not a suitable vision. China must have its own “dream.”

I posited a vertical dimension of national identity, covering views of what makes the internal structure of China distinct and superior. The way the “China Dream” is now presented it rules out or, at least, subordinates other dreams based on ethnicity and civil society groupings. It is no coincidence that rejection of constitutionalism has emerged as one of the first tests of what the “China Dream” means. This is by no means a liberating vision, motivating groups in society to strive for their own goals. It is a call for top-down direction to continue to propel a unified China forward.

On the horizontal dimension, the “China Dream” further separates China from its neighbors, rather than being linked to an “East Asian Community” vision, as was agreed more than a decade ago. For at least some, it justifies a more assertive posture to overcome the legacy of humiliation, for instance toward Japan. The US forward presence in East Asia, culturally as well as militarily, could be considered an impediment to this dream. If history appears to be the starting point for insisting on the existence of the “China Dream,” then international relations loom as a principal testing grounds for whether the dream is being realized.

As we look at the intensity dimension of national identity, we should be watching to see if the introduction of a slogan credited to a new, assertive leader is evidence that national identity will be more deeply inculcated. Already in the past few years there has been some intensification of efforts to spread national identity. After three full decades when experts did not need to be “red,” observers need to keep close watch on the prospect that one’s political attitudes may matter more. In the slogans chosen by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, there was little sign of a campaign approach to making Communist Party members and many in responsible positions cast passivity aside. So far, the “China Dream” is not being used to rally people in that manner, but more than other ideals since the Mao era it has the potential to be redirected this way.