The China Dream – 3

This monthly post tracks developments around the “China Dream” since August 16, 2013. It continues to be the case that if we follow the thread of the “China Dream” discourse we learn much about Chinese domestic politics and foreign policy.

After the Beidaihe meeting was over, the Chinese leaders reengaged in high profile diplomacy. On September 3, Xi Jinping left for Turkmenistan on his way to the G-20 summit in Russia and then attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan on September 13. Xi visited Russia and four Central Asian countries around the two summits. He did not mention the “China Dream.”

Chinese diplomats do talk about the “China Dream” though. State Councilor Yang Jiechi, who outranks Foreign Minister Wang Yi, published an essay on Chinese diplomacy in an important party journal on August 16.1 Not surprisingly, Yang praised it as “strategic, overarching and innovative,” highlighting how Xi had explained it to foreign leaders and the foreign public “as representing the dream of all ethnicities in China and the Chinese people, connecting to the dreams of all nations and contributing to realization of a world dream by sharing growth opportunities and facilitating realization of other nations’” own dreams. “President Xi’s comprehensive, profound and exquisite description of the Chinese dream is a continuation and development of the important thinking of China’s peaceful development in the new era.” The direct quotes came from Yang’s September article in English, which is essentially a translation of his August 16 Chinese essay.3

Wu Jianmin, former ambassador to France and a moderate diplomat, criticized Colonel Liu Mingyuan’s “China Dream” book as not reflecting Deng Xiaoping’s diplomatic thinking or the intention of the party center. Wu viewed Xi’s “China Dream”2 as similar to the “American Dream,” but different from Liu’s “China Dream.” At the same time, Wu acknowledged that Liu’s book had “excited” some veteran leaders. Did some of them talk up the book to Xi? Earlier in June, Liu himself told the BBC that Xi shared his dream to make China the dominant power,4 but he did not mention whether Xi had borrowed his idea.

It is the job of Yang and other Chinese diplomats to reassure the world. Some may genuinely wish for a Chinese dream similar to the “American dream.” But as summarized in the rejoinder, Zheng Wang and Elizabeth Barrett rightly view the “China Dream” as different from the “American” dream with the latter focusing on universal values, social mobility, and openness to the outside world. However the Chinese government wants to spin the “China Dream,” it seems obvious to the outside world that with increasing attacks on constitutionalism and emphasis on divergence between the Chinese system and the Western democratic system, the essence of the “China Dream” is hardly reassuring.

Despite recent attempts to boost the standing of the Chinese diplomats, they still rank low. When Xi and Obama met on September 6, Chinese official media named only four leaders among those who accompanied Xi, three politburo members, and lastly Yang. For state activities, Chinese media only lists “state leaders” who have to be above the vice premier rank. Thus, one would not know whether Foreign Minister Wang Yi was a participant. Thanks to a photo included in the Chinese news story, we see him at the meeting, sitting third from Xi’s left, with two politburo members in between.5

The outside world is paying great attention to what the Chinese military says and does, which has far more relevance for determining whether Beijing is following a peaceful development path than what the Chinese diplomats have to say. Defense Minister Chang Wanquan paid a high-profile 4-day visit to the United States in late August, continuing a recent trend of intensifying military diplomacy.

On August 22, Bo Xilai was put on trial. Observers expected a show trial. Instead, Bo put on quite a show himself, defiantly recanting his earlier confessions to bribery and vigorously debating his accusers, revealed almost live on the Chinese social media. One instant conspiracy theory was that the Bo defiance was also staged to show that this was not a show trial. That is a spin in my view. People have been trying to persuade the Chinese leadership that it is in their own interest to allow open dissent, but it is more likely that it had no choice but allow some transparency for such an important political figure with many supporters. The Bo trial did not heal a divided nation. After all, the actual amount of the bribery Bo allegedly took (around 27 million yuan) seemed insignificant given the public perception of officials all being more corrupt. Chinese citizens have almost opposing dreams about their country’s political future, as revealed in the Bo trial. Indeed, as Fei-Ling Wang observed succinctly in his rejoinder, “how to manage those Chinese dreams without democracy and the rule of law remains an epic challenge that will determine the fate of the PRC and the CCP.”

While the Bo trial was sensitive for the CCP party leadership, they wanted people to think that they were not distracted. Li Keqiang won cabinet approval for the Shanghai Free Trade Zone during the trial. China needs economic reforms, but there has not been as much chatter on economic reform measures as on party rectification and mass line. We may not have an economic reform storm at the party plenum in November, as announced on August 27, the day after the five-day hearings of the Bo trial ended.

Xi is apparently serious about anti-corruption. He is going after so-called corrupt “tigers.” On September 1, Jiang Jiemin came under investigation, which virtually guarantees his guilty verdict. As the chief of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council, Jiang is the first cabinet-minister level cadre and the first member of the CCP Central Committee to fall under Xi. Several other senior leaders in the powerful state oil sector had been detained in late August. Jiang spent almost his whole career in that sector. It is widely reported in Hong Kong media and foreign media that all this points to the eventual fall of Zhou Yongkang, a recently retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee and the former chief of the security apparatus. Zhou arose from the state-owned Shengli Oil Field and promoted most recently disgraced officials. He has been rumored to be a supporter for Bo Xilai. A few news stories related to the security apparatus around mid-August also caught attention, suggesting Xi’s success in consolidating his power in this apparatus, necessary if Xi moves against Zhou. If Zhou is officially investigated, Xi would be changing the rules of the game under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, namely avoiding going after serving or retired standing committee members. This would be potentially destabilizing for Chinese politics because all factions would now be fearful of their fate after retirement and would therefore fight much harder.

Continuing the recent trend noted in the previous post, Xi has not used the term “China Dream” much. It is noteworthy that Liu Yunshan, the head of the powerful propaganda apparatus, did not invoke the term in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Central Party School on September 1. Rather, Liu emphasized that the party rank and file should study Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, especially Deng Xiaoping Theory, the “Three Represents,” the “Scientific Development Outlook,” and “the essence of a series of important speeches General Secretary Xi Jinping has made since the 18th Party Congress” and they should behave “honestly and true to the original” [laolaoshishi, yuanyuanbenben].6 This line was copied verbatim from Xi’s speech made at the National Propaganda Work conference on August 19, except that Xi did not include his own theory nor mention the “China Dream.”7 Liu could be interpreted as saying that one should not turn Xi’s thoughts into a slogan and spin it to one’s own advantage. Some had indeed criticized Liu’s propaganda apparatus for doing precisely that. Rumors aside, Liu sent a clear message that Xi’s own theoretical contribution is yet to be named. That open-endedness is probably what Xi wants at this point. In the meantime, the “China Dream” remains a high-frequency term in official discourse. On August 26, the party center issued its first official interpretation of the 18th Party Congress to the outside world, with “China Dream” in its title. It could be tricky for those who want to flatter the top leader for personal gain if the message from the top becomes less clear about “China Dream.”

Terminology aside, the ideological fight in China is intensifying. In early September the party official media outlets launched an even stronger attack on constitutionalism and a whole range of thinking that allegedly weakens party leadership and subjects the country to Western subversion. The attack was interpreted as reflecting Xi’s thinking, as revealed in his August 19 speech, for which there is no official version, but which apparently also said much about the need for reform. Xi’s commitment to CCP dominance naturally makes him lean politically to the conservative side. There has been a recent wave of arrests of activists and critics to stifle any challenge to party rule.8 Xi once dismissed all “this empty talk” as detrimental to the nation, but it is doubtful that dissent will diminish, given the magnitude of the challenges this evolving nation is facing.

1.China News Agency, August 16, 2013, (accessed August 16, 2013).

2.Yang Jiechi, “Implementing the Chinese Dream,” National Interest, September 10, 2013, (accessed September 11, 2013).

3.Guangming Daily website, August 19, 2013, “Implementing the Chinese Dream,” National Interest, September 10, 2013, (accessed September 2, 2013).

4.“What Does Xi Jinping’s China Dream Mean,” BBC News, June 5, 2013, (accessed September 10, 2013).

5. China News Agency, September 6, 2013, (accessed September 7, 2013).

6. Xinhua News Agency, September 1, 2013, (accessed September 1, 2013).

7. Xinhua News Agency, August 20, 2013, (accessed August 20, 2013).

8. Human Rights Watch, “China: Nationwide Arrests of Activists, Critics Multiply: Drive to Strengthen One-Party Rule Unhindered by Upcoming UN Rights Council Election,” August 30, 2013, (accessed August 30, 2013).


Editorial Staff with the permission of Manoranjan Mohanty

On September 21, Manoranjan Mohanty published an article titled “Xi Jinping and the 'Chinese Dream.'” This response to Ming Wan draws on the discussion of his article.

Mohanty's argument complements and expands on Ming Wan's analysis of the ambiguous nature of the concept of “China Dream” and its practical implementation. While Ming Wan draws attention to certain contradictions concerning the “China Dream” and to the open-endedness of this concept, Mohanty argues more forcefully that the “China Dream” thus far appears to merely represent a framework for political mobilization, rather than an actual shift in policymaking.

He examines Xi's approach with respect to four key objectives: fighting corruption, promoting democracy, reforming the economy, and establishing China's global position. Mohanty contends that Xi has not made any significant breaks from the previous administration on any of these issues, and it remains challenging to discern the specific policy choices that Xi is promoting.

With respect to fighting corruption, while Xi elevated it to the forefront of the policy agenda by persecuting many officials, including some top ones, as well as by launching major campaigns to “clean up” the party, the actual strategy to fight corruption has remained the same. Xi intensified the punishment for corruption, but like previous leaders, continued to treat it as a “governance” rather than as a “structural” issue. We are yet to see a comprehensive anti-corruption reform that would address the deep-seated structural issues, such as the nature of economic growth that gives rise to endemic corruption.

As for democracy promotion, Xi's stance remains unclear. While he invited open criticism and urged the party to rekindle its ties with the public, the new leadership has not made concrete steps to enable greater public participation in policymaking. Moreover, the authorities have been caught unprepared for what Mohanty terms a “steadily rising democratic consciousness among the masses,” as demonstrated by the rise in protests.

Xi also stands at a crossroads on economic reform. On the one hand he needs to maintain fast economic growth in order to “revitalise” the “China Dream,” but on the other, he is also under severe pressure to address the contradictions stemming from fast growth, such as environmental degradation and rising income inequality, among other issues. For now there are no apparent signs as to how Xi would accomplish balanced economic reform or implement Hu's vision of “scientific outlook on development.”

Finally, on a global scale, “China Dream” could either translate into China's increasing ambition for great power status, or into its role as a facilitator of a more balanced and democratic geopolitical order. For now, Xi seems to play both cards at the same time. He is projecting China's global power ambitions, while at the same time Xi is making great effort to build alliances with developing countries in the region and beyond. As with other issues, it remains to be seen which path Xi will end up prioritizing.

According to Mohanty, therefore, the “China Dream” can be mainly interpreted as a mobilization framework, but not necessarily as a real transformation in domestic or international politics. Xi's responses to major issues outlined above are as ambiguous as the concept he has been promoting.

One thought Mohanty does not entertain in his analysis, however, that Ming Wan has touched upon, is the fact that ambiguity of the “China Dream” concept and its subsequent policies might be intentional and possibly beneficial to the long-term comprehensive policy change. Chinese leaders are known for testing the waters before embarking on large-scale reform. The adaptiveness of the party-state has been linked to its flexibility in policy-making. Moreover, when it comes to political change, the cycles of “opening” and “tightening” (fang/shou) have characterised China's political climate for decades. Given the sensitivity of all the issues Mohanty outlines, it would be surprising if Xi would settle for a more explicit and rapid policy change. Rather than necessarily interpreting Xi's fluid policy approach as a weakness, it might be useful to examine it as a normal step in the party's adaptation process.