Fierce Debate Erupts over the Meaning of the “China Dream”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 9

The China Dream

Since becoming General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last November, Xi Jinping has talked about the “China Dream” (zhongguo meng) at least five times. On all these occasions, Xi has equated the China Dream with “fulfilling the great renaissance of the Chinese race,” adding that “this is the greatest dream of the Chinese race in recent history.” Given that Xi lacks the reputation of a theorist, the China Dream already has been considered as a major slogan of the Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang era, which is set to run until the 20th Party Congress of 2022. Questions, however, have arisen as to whether the “fulfillment of the China Dream” can be raised to the same level as seminal dictums pronounced by Xi’s predecessors, such as ex-presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Hu coined catchphrases such as “constructing a harmonious society” and implementing the “scientific outlook on development,” while Jiang is best remembered for his “Theory of the Three Represents” ( [Beijing], April 1; [Beijing], March 13). Of much more significance is the fact that, owing to the vague yet all-embracing connotations of the China Dream, cadres and intellectuals of different persuasions are locked in a fierce debate about the slogan’s relevance to the future of reform, particularly political liberalization.

At its simplest level, the China Dream or the renaissance of the Chinese race simply means an economically prosperous and militarily strong China. When Xi first put forward his pet idea while inspecting an exhibition of recent history at the China National Museum in last November, he laid down two specific objectives about economic progress. By 2021, the centenary of the CCP’s establishment, China should meet the target of “constructing a xiaokang [moderately prosperous] society.” Furthermore, by 2049—the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic—China will have developed into a “modernized socialist country that is rich, strong, democratic, civilized and harmonious” (Xinhua, November 29; People’s Daily Online, November 29). According to Wang Yiming, a senior economist at the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s GDP is expected to hit 90 trillion yuan ($14.6 trillion) by 2020, at which point per capita GDP may breach the psychologically important watershed of $10,000 per capita. Wang further projected that by 2050, the country’s GDP could reach 350 trillion yuan ($56.6 trillion), and per capita GDP could reach 260,000 yuan ($42,000) (China News Service, March 7; [Beijing] March 6).

How about socio-political development, particularly the flowering of democratic ideals? Upon being elected State President at the National People’s Congress (NPC) last March, Xi dropped hints about some form of commitment to egalitarianism when he revisited the China Dream leitmotif. He indicated that “the China Dream is the dream of the [Chinese] race as well as the dream of every Chinese [person].” The supremo further pledged that all Chinese should “have the chance of distinguishing themselves in their lives.” “They should enjoy opportunities of having their dream come true,” he added, “They should have the opportunity of growing up and making progress in tandem with the motherland and the times” (CCTV News, March 17; China News Service, March 17).

It is apparent, however, that Xi, who is also Chairman of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC), was not referring to Western or universal precepts of equality and democratic rights. After all, Xi has vowed that while the CCP administration “will avoid old roads that are closed and fossilized, it will also not go down the slippery path that involves changing the flags and colors” of socialism with Chinese characteristics (, December 14, 2012; Southern Daily [Guangzhou], November 17, 2012). Indeed, in his NPC speech, Xi laid down three prerequisites for attaining the China Dream: “The China Dream can only be fulfilled via going down the China road; realizing the China Dream necessarily means propagating the China spirit; and realizing the China Dream requires concentrating and crystallizing China’s strength” (Xinhua, March 17; People’s Daily Online, March 17). This essentially ruled out the introduction of Western ideas and institutions of governance. Moreover, the Xi-Li administration has through a series of administrative restructuring concentrated more power than ever in a few high-level, non-transparent party organs, such as the Central Committee Secretariat (“Centralized Power Key to Realizing Xi’s ‘China Dream’,” China Brief, March 28).

Conservative opinion-makers have warned that Xi’s slogan must not be interpreted as an endorsement of “bourgeois-liberal” values. Wang Yiwei, a political scientist at Beijing’s Renmin University, has laid into liberal intellectuals “who want to equate ‘the China Dream’ with all-out Westernization.” It was wrong to equate the China Dream with ideals such as “the dream of constitutional governance or the dream of human rights and democracy,” he noted. Professor Wang added that the China Dream actually meant “the Sinocization of Marxism through taking into consideration China’s own conditions, so as to open up the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (Xinhua, April 16; Global Times, April 16). In a commentary on the same subject, the usually hard-line Beijing Daily pointed out that Xi’s rallying cry was aimed at promoting patriotism as well as obedience to CCP edicts. The paper noted “We must meld together the country’s dream and the dream of the [Chinese] race with each individual’s dream.” The commentary went further, adding “The China Dream is about goals that Communist party members struggle hard to achieve…It also represents the [collective] aspirations of all Chinese men and women” (People’s Daily Online, December 19, 2012; Beijing Daily, December 18, 2012).

Despite the fact that Xi has the past decade avoided touching upon the sensitive issue of political reform or ideological liberalization, a number of free-thinking intellectuals have given a liberal interpretation of the “China Dream.” Leading dissident Bao Tong, who is the former personal secretary of disgraced General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, called upon Xi to “return the dream to the people.” Bao, who is under 24-hour police surveillance, indicated that Xi at least recognized that the “subject” (zhuti) of the China Dream was individual Chinese and not the state. “Xi has made clear that the China Dream should be realized according to the private ownership system,” Bao noted in an article last March for Radio Free Asia. “The China Dream must not be monopolized by the state,” he wrote, “The country should allow us common folks to each dream his own dream.” Bao added that his own dream was that all Chinese “can have freedom of expression…and freedom from fear of being harassed and censored” (Radio Free Asia, March 21). Similarly, Peking University law professor and internationally-known public intellectual He Weifang offered his personal reading: “The most important goal of a modernized nation is to allow the people to have dignity, freedom and [civil] rights so that each person can work hard to fulfill his own dream” (Deutche Welle Chinese edition, March 21).

It is significant that even scholars who are affiliated with units that are at the center to the party establishment apparently have given a relatively unorthodox spin to the “China Dream.” For theorist Zhou Tianyong, who teaches politics at the CCP Central Party School (CPS), the China Dream meant that “every Chinese can work and live in the midst of democracy, equality, fairness, justice [and] righteousness—and in a well-ordered harmonious society.” Professor Zhou added that “the state should come up with policies so that each person who tries hard should have the chance [to realize his dream].” Xin Ming, another well-known CPS scholar, put forward a similar characterization of the “China Dream.” Xin pointed out that the China Dream should have the following connotations: “a sufficient level of democracy, well-developed rule of law, [the enshrinement of citizens’] sacrosanct human rights…and the free and full development of every citizen” (Caixin, April 17; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong] April 13).

Discord over the meaning and significance of the China Dream also manifests itself in different interpretations over the rallying cry’s implications for foreign policy. Xi has made it clear that the ideal of the China Dream is not confined merely to the People’s Republic and its citizens. In an interview with journalists from BRICS nations last March, Xi pointed out that “China being the world’s second largest economy, the China Dream also will bring opportunities to the world” and “The China Dream will be realized through a road of peace.” While speaking at the Moscow Academy of International Relations, he reiterated “The China Dream will bring blessings and goodness to not only the Chinese people but also people in other countries.” It was while touring Tanzania that the new head of state gave the clearest indication of the global significance of the China Dream mantra. While waxing eloquent on the “African dream” and the “world dream,” Xi said: “Together with the international community, the Chinese and African peoples will work toward realizing the global dream of sustained peace and joint prosperity” (China News Service, March 26; [Beijing], March 19). These statements, which were tailor-made for a global audience, seemed indicative of Xi’s desire to highlight Beijing’s commitment to “peaceful development” and to dispel the “China threat” theory. 

It must be noted, however, that there is clearly a military—and globally assertive—aspect to the China Dream and “the renaissance of the Chinese race.” While inspecting divisions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last December, Xi reiterated that the China Dream also meant “the dream of a strong China” and “the dream of a strong military.” “To attain the great renaissance of the Chinese race, we must uphold [the principle of] the synthesis of a prosperous country and a strong army, and we must assiduously build up and consolidate national defense and a strong military,” Xi noted (People’s Daily Online, December 13; China News Service, December 13). On numerous occasions, Xi also called upon PLA officers and soldiers to “get ready to fight and to win wars” (“Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping Raises the Bar on PLA ‘Combat Readiness’,” China Brief, January 18).

Moreover, the PLA top brass seems keen on interpreting the China Dream in such a way as to justify its lobbying for more economic resources and a greater say in national affairs. In a recent editorial entitled “The whole army must provide resolute and strong support to guarantee the realization of the China Dream,” the PLA Daily indicated that the defense forces would “struggle hard for the fulfillment of the dream of a strong China and a strong army.” “Only when national defense construction is up to scratch will there be a strong guarantee for economic construction,” the PLA mouthpiece added, “Boosting national defense construction also will give a significant push to economic and social development” (PLA Daily, March 18;, March 18). 

Compared to predecessors ex-presidents Jiang and Hu at a comparable stage of their tenure as party chief, Xi has been able to much more quickly and solidly firm up his power base in the party, government and military. Now the 59-year-old head of the “Gang of Princelings” must prove to both Chinese and foreign audiences that he is at least as capable as his father, former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, of thinking outside the box and offering unconventional yet effective solutions to China’s myriad problems. Otherwise, Xi risks going down history as yet another unscrupulous politician who has failed to deliver improvements in the people’s living standards and civil rights while using patriotic and high-sounding slogans to cover up the party elite’s many shortcomings.