The “China Dream”

When Ming Wan led our Topics of the Month discussion about the “China Dream,” many were uncertain about what this concept means for international relations and how does it relate to other themes popular in Chinese official discourse, such as a “new type of great power relations.” Looking back in the spring of 2014 on the “China Dream,” we can say with more certainty that it is an expression of confidence about China’s advance in the western Pacific. There is more skepticism about China’s intentions toward Japan, states in Southeast Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and the United States. While each relationship has its own dynamics, the “China Dream” operates as a guiding ideal. Even as opinions vary on which of these relationships is primarily driven by security and which by national identity, relating all of them to a single overarching principle deepens understanding of how the “China Dream” is reshaping thinking on foreign affairs. The tone recently in Washington is increasingly doubtful about “a new type of great power relations” as a smokescreen for getting acceptance of China’s “core interests” and of the “China Dream” as an assertion of national identity intended to challenge the global and regional order.

In this perspective, the “China Dream” is best understood as a proxy for national identity at a time of reconstruction from the cautious tone of Deng Xiaoping through the growing boldness under Jiang Zemin and early Hu Jintao, followed by the assertive shift in 2009. It is an image of China in direct opposition to the US-led international community and to the long-established Western-centered order championing the ideal of universal values. It bridges the three ideological elements of socialism (assumed to be a ready extension of China’s past), Confucianism (reinterpreted narrowly), and anti-imperialism (the need for a native dream is to buttress opposition against a dangerous foreign dream). Even more, it is an affirmation of Eastern civilization versus Western (and Japanese) civilization, and of sinocentrism as the natural expression of Eastern civilization in international relations in East Asia and beyond. Over the four years from the Beijing Olympics to the ascent to power of Xi Jinping, there was no central symbol of identity. The propaganda campaign around the “China Dream” has furnished that missing core. This makes mobilizing on the basis of identity easier, including rallying against “others” having “contrasting” identities.

In the 1980s there were stirrings in China of positive recognition of the “Japan Dream,” enterprise-oriented, family-centered, contrasting to wartime Japan. By the late-80s such academic interpretations (an echo of those in the West and elsewhere) were expunged in favor of warnings about the danger of Japanese aspirations. In the early 1990s as some in Japan advocated an East Asian dream that could embrace both countries, this gained no traction in China. There was also a skeptical response to Asian values as a regional dream not based in China. Afterwards, a zero-sum attitude spread of China rising from a century of humiliation at the expense of Japan’s continued humiliation of that country. Yet, the history theme, as it applied to the Cold War era, the post-Cold War era, and even views of earlier periods, has centered more on the United States and the West as holding China down or, at least, failing to respect China’s civilization while making exaggerated claims about their own. History and civilization were merged in a grand narrative, contrasting elements of the “China Dream,” with conflicting dreams that have stood in China’s way.

Recently, there has been much speculation about China’s intentions toward the Korean Peninsula. The “China Dream” is not irrelevant. Historically, Korea has been a symbol of sinocentrism, of the awakening of China’s patriotism critical to its rejuvenation in the Korean War, and of the ongoing struggle between the US-alliance system and hegemonic approach to East Asia and China’s quest for leading the region with “peace and stability” as in the renewal of the Six-Party Talks with a new agenda. The more the “China Dream” is showcased, it might follow, the less likely it is that China will accept reunification by which South Korea sustains the existing US alliance or international order. After all, China refuses to discuss North Korea in the context of universal values, South Korean views of sovereignty, and the “international community.” Instead, these issues are seen not only in geopolitical terms, but also through criticism of US goals—civilizational more than strategic—likely to be tested in a crisis over North Korea. However much China professes to support denuclearization, this does not stand alone as an objective. It is overridden by concerns about what dream will prevail not for the Korean people, but for the people of East Asia in a competition between China and US-led rivals.

In international relations we know more about what the “China Dream” is against than what it is for. That does not limit its significance as a rival worldview aimed at eclipsing the US world ideal. The target is not North Korea’s threat to the regional order or the new Russian threat to the international community, but the US-led world order empowering states on China’s border to conduct a cultural offensive against China. The rejuvenation of China necessitates the abandonment of negative judgments about China’s history, e.g., the June 4 repression of 1989, the cultural onslaught against the Tibetan people, and the Chinese support for North Korea in all phases of its inhumane domestic policy. At stake is more than the balance of power. It is a contest between two dreams that leaders have decided cannot be reconciled with each other and must be depicted as opposites. Recent emphasis on a “common destiny” with Asian nations has overtones of sinocentrism and exclusion of the United States from this strategic and civilizational sphere. Russia has a standing invitation to align itself with this “common destiny,” and increasingly is likely to do so. Even if there is little cultural affinity with China, there is much national identity affinity, if that term is applied broadly and systematically. The United States might have the option of accepting two parallel destinies if it were to abandon Japan and eventually South Korea too to their common destiny with China. That appears to be inconceivable.

Liberal theory and much of the foreign policy of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and others toward China since the 1980s has been based on the hope that a shared dream can be nurtured. Admitting China into the WTO was one more step in this direction. The effort to remove Taiwan’s quest for de jure independence, which finally was deemed to be working in 2008, was also linked to clearing the way for shared aspirations. What is striking today is that the more the “China Dream” is clarified, the less the “fantasy” of a shared dream is repeated. The message in recent discussions in all of the countries most concerned is that, at best, tensions can be managed by finding common interests or, at a minimum, increasing transparency to avoid misunderstandings that lead to accidents or crossing one side’s red lines without being fully conscious of the likely consequences.

The meaning of the “China Dream” may still change. This is a concept worth following closely in the months ahead. Yet, the evidence to date does not leave room for ambiguity about its primary purpose or relevance to international relations. It is a call for separating China, resisting global trends, and asserting defiance in the face of regional skepticism.