Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”: Dangers in Opacity

Every head of the post-Mao PRC  has risen to power with a personal slogan to characterize their leadership aspirations and establish their position in the ideological heritage of the CCP. Deng Xiaoping began the tradition with “Reform and Opening-up,” next came Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” theory, and then Hu Jintao added his concept of “Scientific Development” to modern China’s politico-economic legacy. Since becoming President and CCP General-Secretary, Xi Jinping has been flaunting his own mantra – the “Chinese Dream” – a catchphrase vague enough to have spurred a variety of interpretations from microblog and media commentators, and one that the Global Times has found easier to define in negative terms. However cryptic the phrase, actions to firmly embed Xi’s “Chinese Dream” into popular thought are well underway: the slogan is frequently appearing on the front pages of state-run newspapers, academic grants for research revolving around the “Dream” are available, and propaganda directives to bolster the “Chinese Dream” have been laid out. While folk-singer Chen Sisi’s ballad “Chinese Dream” (whose music video flashes images of virgin landscapes, developed cityscapes, and a strong military) is topping charts in China, online surveys have also made clear a lack of netizen confidence in Xi’s vision.

The Economist has devoted two recent articles to the mysterious catchphrase. The first examines the origins of the slogan, situates it in China’s tradition of leadership, and explains the strategy behind its opacity:

So far [Xi's "Chinese Dream"] is being left deliberately vague. The unwritten rules of succession politics in China require Mr Xi to keep his policy preferences close to his chest at the beginning of his term in office, and to stick to the guidelines laid down by his predecessors. He is all but obliged to work towards the targets of the five-year economic plan that was adopted under Mr Hu in 2011 (which is strong on the need for more environmentally friendly growth). He has to stick to the party’s longer-term plans as well: the attainment of a “moderately well-off society” by the time of the party’s 100th birthday in 2021 (one year before Mr Xi would have to retire); the creation of a “rich, strong, democratic, civilised and harmonious socialist modern country” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist nation. (The meaning of these words has never been made clear, but officials are explicit that “democratic” does not involve multi-party politics.) If precedent is any guide, Mr Xi would not begin to start any serious tinkering with policy until a meeting of the party’s central committee in the autumn, a year after his assumption of power.

The vagueness of the “Chinese dream” slogan allows Mr Xi to embrace these inherited aims while hinting that, under his rule, change is possible. But the lack of specificity also carries risks. It provides a space in which the Chinese can think of their own dreams—which may not coincide with Mr Xi’s. Since November the term has not merely been promulgated. It has been discussed and even argued about across the political spectrum, both in articles published by the official media and in outpourings online. In effect, the public is defining the dream by itself.

While the direct policy implications of the “Chinese Dream” are as of yet unclear, another piece from The Economist looks at two dangers that could come with Xi’s vision:

One is of nationalism. A long-standing sense of historical victimhood means that the rhetoric of a resurgent nation could all too easily turn nasty. As skirmishes and provocations increase in the neighbouring seas (see Banyan), patriotic microbloggers need no encouragement to demand that the Japanese are taught a humiliating lesson. Mr Xi is already playing to the armed forces. In December, on an inspection tour of the navy in southern China, he spoke of a “strong-army dream”. The armed forces are delighted by such talk. Even if Mr Xi’s main aim in pandering to hawks is just to keep them on side, the fear is that it presages a more belligerent stance in East Asia. Nobody should mind a confident China at ease with itself, but a country transformed from a colonial victim to a bully itching to settle scores with Japan would bring great harm to the region—including to China itself.

The other risk is that the Chinese dream ends up handing more power to the party than to the people. In November Mr Xi echoed the American dream, declaring that “To meet [our people’s] desire for a happy life is our mission.” Ordinary Chinese citizens are no less ambitious than Americans to own a home (see article), send a child to university or just have fun (see article). But Mr Xi’s main focus seems to be on strengthening the party’s absolute claim on power. The “spirit of a strong army”, he told the navy, lay in resolutely obeying the party’s orders. Even if the Chinese dream avoids Communist rhetoric, Mr Xi has made it clear that he believes the Soviet Union collapsed because the Communist Party there strayed from ideological orthodoxy and rigid discipline. “The Chinese dream”, he has said, “is an ideal. Communists should have a higher ideal, and that is Communism.”[...]

For more on the “Chinese Dream,” including Crazy Crab’s illustrated take, see prior CDT coverage.