Will China’s Dream turn into America’s Nightmare?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 7

Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu

China’s Dream: Major Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in a Post-American Era has attracted considerable attention from both Chinese and Western media [1]. The author, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, calls for China to replace the United States as the dominant military power. Liu is a professor at People’s Liberation Army (PLA) National Defense University and former director of the university’s Army Building Research Institute, which researches and teaches about modernization and force development issues. He enlisted in 1969 and spent the first 20 years working in political affairs in the Jinan military region before moving to NDU. (A PLA colleague noted that Liu is a political officer, not a strategic researcher, and that he has never visited the United States). Liu’s recent writings focus on promoting Hu Jintao’s “New Historic Missions” (xin de lishi shiming) for the PLA, which include helping ensure China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic security in order to continue national development and safeguarding China’s expanding national interests. References to the “New Historic Missions” can be viewed as arguments for expanding PLA capabilities and budgets for missions beyond Taiwan. China’s Dream is written for a popular audience and published by a commercial press rather than by the military. It does not represent the official views of the Chinese government or the PLA, but should be read as one voice (and a fairly extreme voice) in an ongoing debate about China’s strategic and military posture.  

Senior Colonel Liu’s argument can be summarized based on the book, the author’s comments in interviews, and the author’s related articles. He emphasizes the competitive nature of international relations and cites numerous foreign estimates that China’s economy will eventually surpass that of the United States, describing this as “not a matter of if, but when.” He argues that Chinese cultural and racial superiority will allow it to outpace the United States economically. In an interview, he envisioned China’s rise relative to the United States in three phases over a 90 year period: 30 years to catch up to U.S. total gross domestic product, thirty years to catch up to U.S. military capabilities, and thirty years to catch up to the United States in per capita income (ABC News International, March 2).

Liu argues that the hegemonic nature of the United States will not permit it to accept China’s rise. He devotes two chapters to what he describes as “merciless” U.S. efforts to contain the rise of Japan and the Soviet Union. Liu argues that the United States will inevitably “fight a third battle to retain its title” by seeking to contain China’s rise. This will produce a “marathon contest” for global leadership that will be the “duel of the century” (Global Times, February 5). U.S. determination to maintain its superiority and to keep China down will force China to contend for global dominance if its economic rise is to continue.  

Economic power is insufficient for China to prevail in this competition; a strong military is also necessary. “GDP does not equal comprehensive national power, productivity does not equal combat capabilities, national wealth does not equal national capabilities…development ultimately relies on hard military power.” Liu argues that, “if you want peace, you must prepare for war” and “if you want security, then you must become powerful.” Even as China pursues a “peaceful rise,” it must prepare for the possibility of a “conflictual rise.”

Liu views competition between the United States and China as inevitable, but argues that military competition will not produce a major war. The imperative of avoiding mutual ruin (tonggui yujin) will require that the two sides develop mechanisms to guarantee mutual survival. However, China must develop its military power in order to avoid war. “The point of a military rise is not to attack the United States, but to avoid being attacked by the United States.”

Liu frames China’s options in terms of a stark choice between competing for global leadership or collapsing. He argues that China can dispel foreign concerns about a “China threat” by focusing on building a “powerful deterrent capability.” At the same time, China cannot be satisfied with the military capabilities of a third world country or accept any limits on its power or on the development of its military. Liu dismisses concerns about the costs of military spending by arguing that a strong military can help create a prosperous nation and that China can accelerate the pace of its military modernization without producing an arms race.  

Liu’s views about the nature of international rivalry inform his prescription that China must be prepared to engage in a “competition to be the leading country, a conflict over who rises and falls to dominate the world.” He argues that China’s task of prevailing in this global competition will be eased by widespread resentment of U.S. hegemony and by China’s uniquely virtuous historical tradition, which can produce a harmonious world where other countries accept China’s benevolent leadership. He concludes: “to save itself, to save the world, China must prepare to become the [world’s] helmsman.”


China’s Dream is the latest example of a sensationalist book aimed at tapping into a profitable mass market in China. It was published by the China Friendship Publishing Company and distributed by China Media Time. The manuscript was the subject of a bidding war from dozens of Chinese commercial publishers because it was viewed as having significant commercial potential. Senior Colonel Liu has given a series of interviews to Chinese and Western reporters and written several spin-off articles in official publications to publicize the book.

Over the past 15 years, parts of the Chinese media have become more commercialized and eager to publish a range of content designed to generate profit rather than promote political orthodoxy. This has led some publishers to focus on publishing sensationalist and nationalistic views that can attract a mass audience. This new market has stimulated a number of academics and PLA officers to write books advocating controversial positions in order to make money. (A Chinese “punditocracy” has also emerged that regularly makes paid appearances on Chinese television.) A number of PLA officers now supplement their salaries by making media appearances and writing essays and books aimed at a commercial market. The most prominent example is Unrestricted Warfare (published by two PLA Colonels in 1999); the books China Can Say No (published by six academics in 1996) and its sequel Unhappy China (published in 2009) are other examples of works that profited by catering to a growing cohort of nationalist audiences.

There is a big difference in the authoritativeness of books written by military authors that are published by the Academy of Military Sciences or PLA NDU Press (which go through a formal review/approval process) and those published in commercial presses (which do not undergo strict scrutiny and should not be treated as authoritative statements of PLA institutional views). As a commercial book, China’s Dream is not an official statement of policy, but the views the author expresses are within the bounds of acceptable discourse and probably reflect the views of a significant number of PLA officers.

The fact that the foreword to China’s Dream was written by Lieutenant General Liu Yazhou, son-in-law of Li Xinnian (a key Communist leader and former President of the PRC) and the newly appointed political commissar of PLA NDU suggests that at least one politically connected senior officer is willing to associate himself with the author’s views. (The book’s advertising materials emphasize this point by trumpeting Lieutenant General Liu’s recommendation of the book and listing his name in a much larger font size than the author’s). Yet, the foreword does not include any explicit references to Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu or clearly endorse any of the author’s prescriptions. (He does, however, quote U.S. China specialist David M. Lampton). Lieutenant General Liu’s brief foreword discusses the prospect of future Sino-U.S. competition, but does not envision a future war or support Liu Mingfu’s call for China to strive for military dominance. He concludes: “China’s dream need not be America’s nightmare.”  (A PLA officer stated privately that LTG Liu did not read the book before penning the foreword).


China’s Dream has elicited a wide range of reactions among China media and observers, some favorable, some dismissive, and some simply descriptive (Sina.com, December 28, 2009; China Daily, March 3; Xinhua News Agency, January 12; People’s Daily,  March 2). Some prominent PLA military commentators such as Major General Luo Yuan have questioned Liu Mingfu’s analysis, highlighting the contradiction between Liu’s vision of a dominant Chinese military and the present reality (China Daily, March 3). In contrast, Western media have presented the book as a stark challenge to the United States, emphasizing the author’s prescription that China should “sprint” to become the world’s “number one” or “dominant power” (Reuters, March 1; ABC News International, March 2). One newspaper article quoted a U.S. analyst’s argument that Liu’s book “reflects a consensus mindset in the Chinese military and civilian leadership” (Washington Times, March 5). In interviews with foreign and domestic media, Liu has maintained that the views in the book are his own and do not represent official policy. He responded to foreign concerns by telling ABC News, “there is no need for the American public to be afraid of China,” downplaying potentially destabilizing effects of “strategic competition,” and describing it as both “impossible and unnecessary for China’s military to surpass the United States” (ABC News International, March 2).  

Liu’s book comes at a time when PRC scholars and experts are debating whether fundamental changes in the global balance of power have occurred that strengthen China’s position relative to the United States, and considering how China should adapt its policies in response to shifts in relative power. The perception that China has weathered the global financial crisis much more successfully than the United States and other powers contributes to a public mood that China no longer needs to be so deferential to foreign opinion or the interests of the United States, especially on issues that touch on China’s “core interests” – most pointedly, its national sovereignty. This mood partly accounts for China’s louder complaints about the recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.

In recent months, some hardliners, including several senior PLA academics, have argued that China has greater leverage over the United States and should aggressively push Washington to respond to its concerns over Taiwan and other issues. Some advocate using economic means to punish the United States for arms sales to Taiwan. There has been a sharper tone to official Chinese rhetoric on these issues, but Chinese actions have not changed significantly. There are indications, including from recent discussions with retired PLA officers, which some PLA scholars are being told to tone down their public comments. Other Chinese officers and scholars are more optimistic about prospects for U.S.-China cooperation.

This debate has important implications for China’s strategic and military posture (one immediate focus is on appropriate levels of military spending; in early March, China announced a 2010 defense budget increase of 7.5 percent, down from 14.9 percent in 2009 and a reduction from the double-digit increases over the last decade) (Washington Post, March 5). Liu’s book should be interpreted as part of this debate, and as staking out an extreme position within it. His book and newspaper articles drawn from the book reflect a deep-seated suspicion among PLA officers that the United States seeks to contain China and stifle its economic rise. Where the United States sees a policy of engaging China and seeking to encourage a constructive Chinese role within the international system, many PLA officers see a policy aimed at containing and weakening China in order to westernize and split it up. These views are especially prevalent within the PLA political department (which is responsible for enforcing ideology).

It should not really be surprising that PLA officers refuse to accept U.S. dominance of key strategic domains or a permanent position of Chinese military inferiority. Discussions and dialogues with Chinese officers and experts make clear that China will compete in these arenas. This highlights the inherent difficulty of any potential efforts to dissuade China from developing advanced naval, nuclear, space and cyber capabilities. There will be strategic competition in these arenas, and the United States needs to think carefully about how to compete effectively while managing the downsides of this competition [2].  

It is important to remember that the PLA is an influential policy voice, but is not the ultimate decider on these issues. China’s civilian leaders are attempting to balance domestic and international goals, and have consistently given a higher priority to domestic concerns.  The need for PLA officers (including Liu) to constantly reiterate that “China will not engage in arms races” even as they advocate larger budgets, more advanced weapons, and tougher policies shows their need to make the case to civilian leaders that the policies they advocate will not be destabilizing or prove so threatening to others that China winds up creating enemies and driving other countries into a containment posture. Chinese leaders are acutely conscious that over-spending on defense was a key factor that brought down the Soviet Union, and are determined not to repeat that mistake.  

Despite calls by some military voices, a fundamental change in China’s strategy is unlikely in the near-to-medium term. Even as China’s relative power position has improved, widening the range of potential choices, Chinese civilian leaders are acutely conscious of a wide range of domestic challenges that demand their focused attention and which require a stable international environment conducive to continued economic growth. A more aggressive international stance will complicate, and potentially impede, their efforts to deal with these pressing problems. This could happen directly (by diverting resources away from economic development into military modernization) or indirectly (by stimulating hostile responses from the United States or China’s neighbors that reduce opportunities for economic growth).

The decisions civilian leaders make on these issues will be the key factor determining China’s strategic and military direction. Hardline views such as those of Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu will be a voice in that debate, but are not likely to be dominant; a series of popular nationalistic tracts published over the last 15 years have had very little influence on Chinese policy. Extreme views should neither be ignored nor exaggerated. Yet, analysts assessing the potential impact of these nationalist ideas on Chinese policy need to ground their conclusions in a better understanding of Chinese civil-military relations and the Chinese decision-making process.


1. Liu Mingfu, Zhongguo Meng: Hou Meiguo Shidai de DaGuo Siwei yu Zhanlüe Dingwei [China’s Dream: Major Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in a Post-American Era], (Beijing: Zhongguo Youyi Chuban Gongsi [China Friendship Publishing Company], 2010) The foreword and 3700 character table of contents are available at https://www.amazon.cn/mn/detailApp/ref=sr_1_1?_encoding=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270207625&asin=B003554FE4&sr=8-1.

2. For an elaboration of this argument, see Phillip C. Saunders, “Managing Strategic Competition with China,” INSS Strategic Forum No. 242, July 2009, https://www.ndu.edu/inss/Strforum/SF242/SF242.pdf.

[INSS Contract Researcher Isaac Kardon provided research assistance, and INSS China Security Fellow Michael Glosny provided helpful comments.]

[The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]