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, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/06-11/4919323.shtml (accessed June 11, 2013).
2. China News Agency, June 4, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gj/2013/06-04/4893878.shtml (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, http://www.chinanews.com/shipin/2013/06-25/news240943.shtml (accessed on June 26, 2013).
5. See also Xinhua News Agency, June 26, 2013, http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2013/06-26/4972689.shtml (accessed June 26, 2013).
6. Xinhua News Agency, June 24, 2013, http://politics.people.com.cn/n/2013/0624/c70731-21955172.html (accessed June 24, 2013).