The China Dream – 6

This last monthly posting on the “China Dream” discusses the development related to the “China Dream” since November 18 and reflects on what I have learned for the past six months. The recent rejoinder by the Editorial Staff has also provided food for thought.

Now that the Third Plenum is over, the Xi Jinping government continues to push for reform and consolidation of power. As portrayed in the official media at least, Xi, Li Keqiang, and the other Chinese leaders were working hard as they moved around the country and the world. Xi went to Shandong Province, inspecting work and talking up the Third Plenum. Zhang Dejiang went to Yunnan Province, and Wang Qishan visited Hubei Province.1 Li met with the European Union leaders to conclude a strategic cooperation document. He then visited several Eastern European countries and attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization prime ministers’ meeting in Uzbekistan. Xi chaired a politburo meeting to discuss economic work for 2014 on December 3. The CCP held its annual Central Economic Work Meeting on December 10-13.

The Chinese government escalated the risky contest over the disputed islands with Japan (Diaoyu/ Senkaku, or in Taiwan Diaoyutai) by announcing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on November 23. While countries often create an ADIZ that goes beyond their territorial air space or exclusive economic zones, China’s ADIZ covers the disputed islands overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in some other parts of the East China Sea and accompanies its ADIZ with the threat of taking strong enforcement measures.

The Chinese government did not link its more assertive national security posture with the “China Dream” but foreign observers may well interpret Chinese military moves as showing that the “China Dream” is not as benign as the government has maintained. Even if the Chinese military may not think so, the consensus view outside China is that the PLA reacted too strongly to what it viewed as more assertive Japanese scrambling in the Japanese ADIZ and Japan’s expansion of its ADIZ in 2010 and backfired by inviting stronger opposition to China.2 The last rejoinder rightly pointed out that the “China Dream” is increasingly viewed negatively, linked to an assertive Chinese foreign policy.

This recent Chinese move raised a question about the opaque Chinese decision-making process. The Third Plenum announced the creation of a new State Security Committee to better coordinate the country’s security policy. Is this new organ already in operation? If so, did the decision on ADIZ, which should have been under consideration for some time, clear the committee? If not, is the PLA in charge of China’s Japan policy now? Given the rising nationalist sentiment in Chinese society, a more inclusive and open process may still lead to a tough Chinese policy toward the countries with which it has territorial disputes, but would at least avoid making seemingly sudden moves that do not take into consideration the interests and concerns of the neighboring countries. Nobody likes surprises. More important, a more transparent process would allow more discussion in China about the very goals the government should pursue, not just how best to advance the goals the top leadership has selected.

The official Chinese media spared no ink praising Xi and the Third Plenum. Vice Premier Liu Yandong highlighted the theme of the “China Dream” during her visit to the United States.3 Several other politburo members also discussed the “China Dream.” Xi himself did not utter the phrase that much. Li Keqiang apparently did not mention the “China Dream” in his speech at the Romanian parliament on November 27. This could be explained by the fact that the party center had much on their plate after the Third Plenum, which decided on a 60-point decision as policy guide.

The “China Dream” slogan is used by Chinese professionals to push for policy. As a case in point, Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe of Tsinghua University published a paper tying the “China Dream” to an assimilationist ethnic policy.4 The paper was published in the April issue of the university’s journal but caught attention later on. The two authors were driven by the concern that what they view as the government preference for keeping ethnic identities and differential status could be a source of instability and national disunity, particularly when tied to geographical locales. They were not wrong reasoning that failed nation-building in many developing countries has been a crucial reason for their failure in achieving modernization, but they are advocating a top-down program in a different age. The problem with China is too much state rather than not enough of it. No one would reject the notion that all Chinese citizens should be equal in front of the law and enjoy equal human rights, which would reduce ethnic tensions and improve national unity in my view. But to say that all must be equal under CCP leadership is a very different proposal that would only make things worse. A democratic discourse on what the “China Dream” should mean is not a panacea for dealing with ethnic or religious issues, but is surely far superior to a top-down hegemonic discussion of what it means to be Chinese and what dreams people may have.

Looking back to this past year, the “China Dream” has faded to some extent. This is not a case that we see a continuous trend of the slogan being invoked less and less. There has been a noticeable up and down trend if one conducts a rough content analysis of the remarks by the top leaders and the official media coverage, as I have done. There might have been a conscious effort by the party center to play up or down the “China Dream” theme based on political calculations, but it is more likely that what we observe is a reflection of a natural drift. It is difficult to be consistent month by month when you have to deal with so many long-term issues and sudden events.

Even if we observe an upward trend, I would still argue that the “China Dream” has faded for observers, certainly for me. Any slogan would become less interesting and show signs of wear and tear over time. And there is not any new official Chinese interpretation of the term other than periodic criticism that outside observers do not get it or distort its true meaning. More important, the “China Dream” has faded in the sense that it now blends into more substantive theoretical thinking and policy initiatives from Xi over the year. In a way, this is to be expected, as a sort of natural progression for a new leader. In the scheme of things, Xi has been highly ambitious and highly successful. In that process, the “China Dream” served its historical purpose for Xi. It grabbed attention in China and in the world. It was linguistically flashier and more self-evident than a more typical Chinese official slogan such as hypothetically the “Big Seven” or the “Ten Absolutely Nos.” I for one would not be as willing to follow a number game for half a year. The “China Dream” sent a strong signal about Xi being ambitious and strong-willed and constituted an important clue about what this new leader intended to do in domestic politics and foreign relations.

The “China Dream” will continue to be found in official Chinese discourse and will serve as a topic for school education, rallies, writing contests, or even research grants in China. As the rejoinder suggested, the slogan has staying power because it is based on national identity and China’s growing national power, but it is safe for observers to leave it aside now. I was scheduled to end my tracing of the “China Dream” by the end of the year. Good timing too. There is diminishing utility in singling out this particular theme when thinking about Chinese politics and foreign policy. We now know the more substantive discussion on the theory and practice of governance and reform from Xi and his supporters and should focus on how those decisions were made, how they are being implemented, and how things might change in the future. Put simply, we no longer need the “China Dream” for clues about Xi now that he has already said so much and done so much regarding domestic politics and foreign policy.

1. Xinhua News Agency, November 28, 2013, (accessed November 28, 2013); China News Agency, November 29, 2013, (accessed November 28, 2013).

2. See for example Simon Denyer, “China in a Fix as Bluff is Called over New Air Defense Zone,” The Washington Post, November 28, 2013, A12.

3. China News Agency, November 23, 2013, (accessed November 23, 2013).

4. Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe, “China Dream: It Belongs to Everyone of the Chinese Nation,” Journal of Tsinghua (Philosophy and Social Sciences) 28, no. 4 (April 2013): 111-116. The article is written in Chinese.