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China: Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” – A Critique

D.S.Rajan, C3S Paper No.1192 dated September 12, 2013

China’s fifth generation leader Xi Jinping’s vision of a ‘Chinese Dream’ began to take shape soon after his take over as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief last year. Speaking at the National Museum “Road to Revival” exhibition at Beijing, Xi announced ( 29 November 2012) his vision for the achievement of ‘great renewal or rejuvenation of Chinese nation’ which would reflect a “national aspiration for a ‘Chinese Dream’ about making the country stronger through development”. Significant has been his choice of the occasion which was meant to recall the humiliations suffered by China in the past, for contrasting a China to emerge after ‘renewal’ with the ‘status of weakness prevailed in the country for 170 years since the Opium War, subjecting China to bullying’ (Global Times, 30 November 2012).

It was left to authoritative China scholars (like Professor Tang Chongnan, a researcher with the Institute of World History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Professor Zhang Yiwu of Peking University and Professor and Senior Colonel Chen Xiangyang of the Political and Ideological Work Department of Nanjing Army Institute) to come out with further elaboration of the meanings of the terms ‘renewal’ and ‘Chinese dream’. They commonly perceive the terms as meaning a ‘revival of Chinese glories of the past’, such as 5000 years of civilisation and history, the flourishing age in the periods of Qin and Han dynasties and top economic position enjoyed from the Ming period till final years of the Qianlong period during the Qing dynasty (1736-1796). They blame the ‘decrepit feudal system and plundering Western powers’ for China’s disintegration and humiliation in the modern era and find in Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ concept a continuation of the dream of older revolutionaries’ in Chinese history like Sun Yatsen. They compliment Xi Jinping for proposing the ‘Chinese dream’ which , as they claim, illustrates the CCP’s understanding of recent Chinese history and declare that road of ‘socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ is necessary to realise the ‘Chinese dream’. They admit that everyone in the country and people from various sections of the society like workers, army etc can have their own dreams, but they all should have an obligation to the country and combine their dreams with the national dream (Xinhua, 29 April 2013).

There seems to be some justification in believing that in the immediate sense, the ideas of retired Senior Colonel and former Professor in the National Defence University, Beijing, Liu Mingfu could have influenced the making of “Chinese Dream” concept by Xi Jinping. There is indeed striking similarity between Xi’s postulates and Liu’s writings in his book called “the China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-America Era in 2010”. Liu said that “since the 19th Century, China has been lagging on the world stage. The “Chinese Dream” should be for a ‘strong nation with a strong military’. China should aim to surpass the U.S. as the world’s top military power”. Also being seen as influencing is an article entitled “ China Needs its Own Dream”, contributed by Thomas Friedman ( New York Times, October 2012) which wanted Xi to come up with a ‘ new Chinese Dream’ in order to meet expectations of the people on prosperity and sustainable economy. A Xinhua publication ‘Globe’ described Xi’s “ China Dream” concept as ‘best response to Friedman’; Professor Zhang Ming of Renmin University, Beijing , viewed the concept as one used by Xi to improve China’s ties with the US (The Economist, 4 May 2013).

Xi has prescribed a time limit for the fulfilling of “Chinese Dream” – the middle of the current century (Speech at Boao Forum, April 2013). Whether this is possible or not, assuming relevance is Beijing’s identification of a ‘double hundred’ growth target to be achieved in that time frame – (i) building of “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2020, the year around 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, when in all provinces, the average income of the middle class, will reach international standards, China’s GDP of 2000 will be quadrupled to approximately $4 trillion with a per capita level of some $3,000. Military mechanization and major progress in informatisation will be achieved by this time, and (ii) establishment of an ‘affluent, strong, civilized, harmonious, socialist modern country’ by 2050, the year around the PRC’s 100th anniversary, when the annual per capita GDP can reach US$ 40,000, making China one among top 40 countries in the world’ ( Hao Tiechuan, Hongkong Government official, China Daily, 16 January 2013). Full military modernization will also get completed by that time.

There are various dimensions of implications arising from Xi Jinping’s formulation of “Chinese Dream” doctrine. Considering first its impact on China’s domestic politics, it can be said that though it is open to debate whether the doctrine is on par with theoretical contributions of past Chinese leaders, like Deng Xiaoping’s “Reforms and Opening up ”, Jiang Zemin’s “Three represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on development”, ( Chinese scholars like Professor Zhang Yiwu of Peking University argue that Xi’s doctrine is more practical than previous ‘theoretical slogans’ ), one thing may be coming out clear – Xi has been able to project himself as a ‘visionary’ in his own right, which may help him in consolidating his political position in the country, especially in the current crucial phase when the CCP leadership is being required to meet serious internal challenges- (i) ‘undesirable work styles ’ within the party; to bring the CCP closer to the masses, a yearlong campaign has been launched by Xi, and (ii) high level corruption at leadership levels; personalities tried and being investigated include Bo Xilai, former politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, former Politburo Standing Committee member and former Security chief, Jiang Jiemin, a Zhou protégé, a CCP Central committee member, and head of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission and General Gu Junshan, former Deputy Director of PLA General Logistics Department. Xi Jinping at the moment looks to have come under great pressure to show results in meeting such challenges as the dates for holding the important next party plenum for the purpose of making key decisions on reforms and countering high level corruption are coming closer.

Secondly, the focus in the “ China Dream” idea on China having been a victim of colonial aggression in the past and the need to regain past glories, may turn out to be a fodder to the rise of ‘nationalistic’ feelings in the Chinese society. Already, there is a high level of public anger against Japan’s position on the disputed Senkakus islands , as being seen through micro blogs. Several ‘hawkish’ military generals, albeit with tacit approval of the authorities, are more and more adopting a ‘nationalistic’ position on issues concerning the country’s sovereignty. Xi requires to be careful about any ‘resurgence of nationalism’ in the country which if not properly handled can assume forms with potentials to destabilise the regime itself. Only for this reason, the Chinese authorities have so far kept the level of anti-Japanese protests in the country under control.

As third aspect, looking important is Xi’s revelation of the military component of his ‘Chinese Dream’ idea. Visiting the Naval detachment on board Haikou, a guided-missile destroyer that has patrolled disputed waters in the South China Sea, he said (December 2012) that the ‘Chinese Dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation. And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military. To achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and strong military.” Xi also made inspection visits to several army, air force, space and missile facilities in his first 100 days of his office, when he exhorted the military “to fight and win wars’, laid emphasis to adherence to the CCP principle of “Party Commanding the Gun” and warned against any ideological deviation by the party as happened in the case of former Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Importantly, Xi is reported to have taken personal command of the CCP group designed to deal with military operations against Japan on the Senkakus issue . On 1 August 2013, the day of PLA founding, Xi promoted six senior military officers including Cai Yingting and Xu Fenlin, commanders respectively of Nanjing and Guangzhou Military Regions to the rank of full general. All these could be pointers to Xi’s drive to consolidate his position within the Chinese military, the support of which is crucial for the regime survival.

Fourthly, it is probable that the already visible ‘neo-liberalist’ elements in the country questioning the one-party system in China, favouring a constitutional government for the country and pleading for ‘democracy and freedom of expression’, can try to take advantage of the “China Dream” idea which theoretically allows each one to have their own dreams. As instances, an article in the Southern Weekend journal (January 2013) has stressed the need for ‘constitutionalism’ in China. A Chinese academician Tong Zhiwei of East China University of Political Science and Law has demanded a fuller implementation of China’s constitution and a way to “prescribe a limit to the party’s power.” Another scholar Zhang Qianfan of Peking University has estimated that more than three-quarter of Chinese population associate the “China Dream “concept with the dream of “constitutionalism” (The Economist, 4 May 2013). This being so, it should be noted that at no point, the ‘ Chinese Dream’ idea indicates any tolerance to ‘neo-liberal’ thoughts in the country. As evidences to the intentions of Xi Jinping regime to crush such thoughts, Xi has avoided mention of the word ‘constitutionalism’ in his speeches. Party journals have accused those indulging in the ‘secret mission of constitutionalism talk’ of attempting to “abrogate the CCP leadership and to overthrow the socialism regime” (Party Construction journal , 29 May 2013) , while asserting that constitutionalist systems “only belong to capitalism and bourgeoisie dictatorship and not to socialist people’s democracy” ( Red Flag Manuscript). In addition, the authorities have of late identified ‘neo-liberalism’ as one of the ‘seven perils’ before the society (CCP Document No.9). A case in point is also the recent arrest of Xu Zhiyong, a neo-liberal human rights lawyer who demanded disclosure of wealth by senior officials.

Lastly, while tracing the implications of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream’ vision for the PRC’s international behaviour, looking immensely valuable are the official references in China, which say that “the Chinese Dream is not the Chinese people dreaming of remaining behind closed doors, but a dream of opening up; a dream that China can collaborate with the world and achieve a win-win situation. The Chinese dream will benefit China and the world. It will remove ‘doubts and misunderstandings’ in the world about China’s rapid development” (Remarks of Cai Mingzhao, Director of the Information Office of the PRC State Council and Zhou Mingwei, President of China International Publishing Group on the occasion of launch of book on “The Chinese Dream – What It Means for China and the Rest of the World, Beijing, 29 August 2013). The question is whether such references can be taken at their face value by the outside world. In the face of unchanging assertiveness of China on all issues concerning perceived national sovereignty , nations abroad remain unsure about the intentions of a ‘prosperous China with strong military’ (Fu Guo Qiang Jun), to emerge by middle of the century as envisaged in ‘China Dream’ concept.

Xi Jinping’s thinking on “ New Type of International Relations” and “ New Type of relationship between Major Powers in the 21st century” focussing on ‘no conflict , no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation’, so far remains only on paper. There are yet no definite signs that there will be a quick end to Beijing’s strategic rivalry with Washington in the Asia-Pacific region. Also, Xi Jinping’s consistent stand that China while pursuing a win-win international relationship, will not compromise on protecting the country’s ‘core interests’ is causing serious misgivings abroad, particularly to the neighbouring countries having territorial disputes with the PRC. The wariness of these countries over China’s inclination towards territorial assertiveness, even through use of force, has not stopped. In particular, they may be worried about the idea of China regaining past glories, which is central to “China Dream” concept. They may wonder whether ‘regaining past glories’ would specifically mean China’s desire now to restore its external boundary as existed during Qing dynasty period; the historical maps published in the PRC in end eighties and in first decade of the century encompassed vast areas belonging to neighbouring countries (The Historical Atlas of China, 1982-1987 and History of China’s Modern Borders, vol. 1, 2007). No doubt, in an effort to address such worries, Beijing seems to be taking care to assure that “the Chinese Dream” concept will not imply repetition by China of past ‘imperialist’ mentality, the PRC will have an open attitude to the outside world and will try learn from it (Han Baojiang, Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies, CCP Central Committee Party School, Global Times, 9 July 2013). A key question arises – whether or not such assurances are going to satisfy China’s neighbours in the current context?

( The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). This formed the basis of his paper on the subject presented at the Third Annual Conference on “Inside China 2013: New Leadership, Social Changes and Economic Challenges”, jointly organised at New Delhi on 6 September 2013 by the C3S, India International Centre, New Delhi,Institute of Policy and Conflict Studies, IPCS, New Delhi, Department of East Asia Studies, Delhi University and Centre for East Asia Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi Email: director.c3s@gmail.com).
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