For his first summit with Xi Jinping three weeks ago, President Obama was apparently prepped by administration Asia hands that the new Chinese president would likely talk of a “new pattern of major power relations.” What that means in terms of actual Chinese policy is perhaps no more clear than the White House’s plans to pivot to Asia. In their long meeting in California, the two leaders no doubt touched on matters of substance while trading slogans, the most resonant of which for Xi is the “China dream”—a phrase meant to serve as the ideological basis of Xi’s domestic, regional, and international ambitions.
The term “China dream” gained prominence immediately after the 18th Communist Party Congress in late 2012, when members of the newly invested Politburo attended an exhibition in Beijing, “The Road to Revival.” There Xi equated the dream with the revival of China. Embodying the hopes of generations of Chinese to come, the fulfillment of this dream, Xi later explained, would require the party’s sustained leadership.
If the notion of the China dream seems vague, albeit evocative, that’s intentional. The new president wants to avoid alienating all segments of the party, especially since for the first time in the history of Communist China, the ruling cadre includes no revolution-era figures to lend it gravitas and political legitimacy. The China dream references a national resurgence, without striking a plangently nationalist chord. Anything good will contribute to the realization of the China dream, while anything bad will push it further into the distance. Requiring careful stewardship, the China dream also justifies the continued rule of the Communist party. In other words, Xi has reinjected ideology into the party’s political discourse, even if it’s ideology-lite.
Over the last several decades, the role of ideology became less important as the economy shifted away from central planning, and the party adopted Deng Xiaoping’s mantra, “to become rich is glorious.” The decision of Jiang Zemin, the party’s former general secretary, to allow entrepreneurs into the party further moved it away from its Maoist roots. Today’s party is Communist only in the sense that it comprises a small minority of the population, has a monopoly on political power, controls key parts of the economy, and rejects an independent civil society. Egalitarianism, microeconomic planning (often down to the level of individual farmers), and limited disparities between rich and poor have fallen by the wayside.
So long as the economy was growing, the material benefits justified party rule, but, as even Xi has warned, China’s economy is likely to slow down in the coming decade. “I don’t think China can sustain super-high- or ultra-high-speed growth,” Xi said at the Boao Forum for Asia in April. Without an economic boom to ration-alize its continued rule, the party has little choice but to opt for ideology. Xi’s China dream ties the party to the long-term task of leading China’s renewal, and returning it to a leading place among the world’s nations. This will repair the effects of the “Century of Humiliation,” the period from the Opium War (1839) through the end of the Chinese Civil War (1949), when the country’s territory and sovereignty were under constant threat. At the same time, Xi avoids associating national revival with the legacy of Mao Zedong, and the catastrophic disruptions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
For Xi the even more relevant legacy is the situation he inherited from his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Under Hu, economic reform ground to a halt. Renewed emphasis on the state’s role in the economy benefited many members of the party, who not surprisingly resisted further market-oriented reform. Hu’s rule was a period of stasis and retrenchment in the political arena as well. Despite a dizzying array of theoretical slogans—from creating a “Harmonious Society” to pursuing “Indigenous Innovation” and adopting a “Scientific Development Outlook”—Hu failed to establish any kind of political legacy for the party worthy of, say, Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening.”
Hu’s era of stagnation left Xi with little room to maneuver. As the first Chinese leader to rise without the support of a revolution-era figure, Xi will likely face greater challenges to his authority from within the party. Attempts to reform the economy by targeting corruption and liberating market forces will only energize potential rivals. Hence, with the China dream as the fault line separating loyalists from adversaries, Xi has framed it as an easy choice—either stand with the nation and contribute to the China dream, or stand in opposition and go against the dream and China.
Nonetheless, the prospects for domestic political reform are next to nil. There is little evidence that any of the senior leaders, from Xi on down, will use their limited political capital to push for democratization. A useful index is the latest budget, which allocates more for domestic security than national defense. Other problems that Hu bequeathed to Xi include a degraded natural environment and rising ethnic tensions, with increasing numbers of Tibetan self-immolations and Uighur riots in Xinjiang.
On the regional front, Xi’s references to the country’s glorious past and aspirations to return to it will likely set the neighbors’ teeth on edge, no matter how much he tries to round the hard edges of Chinese nationalism. Throughout the history of imperial China, surrounding states, all of whose ways were believed to be inferior to those of the Middle Kingdom, were expected to pay tribute. The recent report claiming that Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands were traditionally Chinese vassals is an unpleasant echo of this past—while it also indirectly challenges the United States, which has military bases on Okinawa. China has also pushed Malaysia, the Philippines, and India on territorial issues.
Internationally, China has defended authoritarian regimes, exercising its veto in the U.N. on behalf of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, opposing further sanctions on Iran, and cooperating with the likes of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar Bashir. This approach is emblematic of the “Beijing consensus,” where economic progress is separate from political liberalization. For Xi, obtaining American acceptance of this approach, as the basis of the new pattern in major-power relations between Beijing and Washington, is also part of the China dream.
Napoleon allegedly said, “Let China sleep, for when the Dragon awakes, she will shake the world.” As Obama may have learned last week, how the dragon wakes might well be presaged in Xi’s China dream.
Dean Cheng is a research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.