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, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/07-22/5069947.shtml(accessed 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, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/08-14/5163197.shtml (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, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/07-16/5049589.shtml (accessed July 16, 2013).
4. Xinhua News Agency, July 24, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/07-24/5079934.shtml; China News Agency, July 25, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/07-25/5085958.shtml (accessed August 13, 2013).