Chinese Dreams: An Ideological Bulwark, Not a Framework for Sino-American Relations

When U.S. President Barack Obama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time in their current capacities on June 7–8, Washington will run squarely into Beijing’s recent efforts to strengthen China’s ideological bulwark against international influences. For all their merits, Xi’s two signature ideas—the “China Dream” and a “New Type of Great Power Relations”—reflect Chinese efforts to create international space for socialism with Chinese characteristics. Expanding the international space for the Chinese system, however, is not a goal in and of itself. Recent articles that describe using the “China Dream” to build a “Peaceful China” (ping’an zhongguo) seem to suggest that Beijing hopes to buy time and space to consolidate at home (Procuratorate Daily, June 1).

The core idea of the “New Type of Great Power Relations” is that “complex and profound changes are taking place in the international landscape…It requires China to stick to its set path, commit to peace and cooperation and blaze a new path to revitalization of a big nation…” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 20, 2012). For other countries, they must deal with these changes in their own way, according to “[their] own history, culture and development.” Other states should respect these choices and abide by the principles of “equality, mutual benefit, reciprocity and win-win [cooperation]” (pingdeng huli huhui shuangying) as part of valuing sovereignty (People’s Daily, June 4).

Chinese and Western analysts have drawn attention to Xi’s vision for international affairs and framed the Obama-Xi summit as a place where the concept can receive its airing (Xinhua, June 6; Guangming Daily, May 29). The problem is that the concept—contrary to most published U.S. analysis—is not really about setting the terms of how an established power and a rising power resolve their conflicts. “New Type of Great Power Relations” is not a G-2 with Chinese characteristics. As then-Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai wrote last summer, “Equality doesn’t mean China will sit with the United States on exactly the same status, ‘managing the world together’ or ‘dividing the world’ between them.” That essay also went further in explicitly noting Chinese policy toward the United States would not be based on anything different than its already-extant foreign policy principles and strategy (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 20, 2012). Moreover, almost every article covering the concept highlights how the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, not only in terms of power distribution among states but also in terms of the number of legitimate development models (People’s Daily, June 3). This is why Beijing has moved “New Type of Great Power Relations” under the broader idea of a “New Type of International Relations,” which Xi propounded in March during his trip to Moscow (International Herald Leader, April 11; People’s Daily, March 24).

The “China Dream” rhetoric also appears to have similar motivations as the “New Type of Great Power Relations.” Even though Xi’s dream still is a top-down, directed propaganda campaign, the idea behind the “China Dream” is to integrate the Chinese people into and get them invested in Beijing’s chosen development pathway. Put another way, according to party journal Seeking Truth, the dream is to unify the party and people, so that they can inject new energy into Chinese development. The dream is a collective one about rebuilding China’s national self-confidence in pursuing its unique development path and achieving its historical position (Qiushi, May 27; May 1). As China Academy of Social Sciences scholar Zhang Guoqing noted, the “China Dream” arose for four basic reasons: one, development requires a motivating force; two, China faces external challenges that affect the country’s internal coherence; three, the “China Dream” improves Beijing’s international “right to speak” (huayuquan); and, four, national morale needs to be built up (Xinhua, May 13). These factors, especially the third one, indicate the “China Dream” has a defensive motivation focused on carving out China’s position in the world and protecting the Chinese system from corrupting foreign influences (“China’s International Right to Speak,” China Brief, October 19, 2012).

Building up an ideological bulwark against external threats to the Chinese system also has a domestic element. The effort to build international legitimacy for the Chinese system appears to be paralleled by the resuscitation of “mass line” (qunzhong luxian) work. An old Maoist idea first promulgated in 1929, the “mass line” describes the party’s efforts to work among the people for the purpose of identifying their discussions and guiding their thinking away from incorrect, if not dangerous, ideas. It is a kind of active legitimacy building and, conceptually, is at the core of the party’s claim to democratic governance. Even if titles such as “The Mass Line is the Lifeline of the Party” (qunzhong luxian shi dang de shengmingxian) are relatively common, it seems as though people actually are seeking them out and reading them (Qiushi, June 1; Procuratorate Daily, June 1; People’s Daily, May 17; China Police Daily, May 10). Analysis of internet search trends suggests the spike this May is the most significant peak—three or four times normal levels—since June 2006 and May 2004.

One of the areas where the “mass line” is visible in guiding government activities is within the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). Shortly before his departure for the Americas, Xi Jinping spoke at a conference chaired by Central Political-Legal Affairs Committee chair Meng Jianzhu, entitled “Work Conference on Deepening Construction of a Peaceful China”  (shenhua ping’an zhongguo jianshe gongzuo huiyi). Xi highlighted the need to let the people’s requirements for law and order as well as development guide police work (Xinhua, May 31).  In one of his rare public appearances, MPS chief Guo Shengkun invoked the “mass line” as the guiding principle for what his ministry should be doing, building on previous MPS campaigns to push police into more direct contact with the Chinese people (China Police Daily, June 2; “Security Chief’s Efforts to Seal Up the Political-Legal Chairmanship,” China Brief, February 21, 2012).

With the “New Type of Great Power Relations” and “China Dream” at the fore of President Xi’s thinking about how to engage the United States, U.S. interlocutors should be aware of how Beijing is trying to shape its international environment. A concept like the “New Type of Great Power Relations”—like the older peaceful coexistence discussion based around the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”—is not about replacing the international order, but rather legitimizing what China already has and offering an alternative to the democratic-capitalist linkages valued in the West (“China’s Coexistence Strategy and Consequences for World Order,” China Brief, May 23). The question here is not whether Beijing is capable of being revisionist or is a responsible stakeholder, but whether Beijing can persuade foreign interlocutors that Xi’s twin concepts are legitimate visions for China. Similarly, the question is not how much soft power China has accumulated, but whether Xi’s new thinking on foreign affairs offers a protective umbrella that other states can use to shelter themselves from Western pressure on governance. The more successful Beijing is at gaining acceptance for these ideas, the more time the government has to consolidate at home.