China's dream of transformation
Lanxin Xiang says the China dream, as long as it remains vague and is not overly politicised, can unite the people behind reform. And the first priority must be to revamp the political structure
A new fashion is gaining ground in Beijing: interpreting a dream. The trendsetter is not a Chinese Freud, but the nation's new top leader Xi Jinping, who first elaborated on the "China dream" after visiting a history museum in Beijing in November. Now, the dream has intoxicated the Chinese media as well as the two red-carpet shows of politics in Beijing. A school of explanation has been fully appropriated by the official propaganda machine, and not a day goes by without some state TV news anchors and commentators offering their jaded opinions.
Indeed, while scrambling for authority over interpreting the meaning and content of the China dream, some commentators have gone too far, bordering on the absurd. One expert at the National Development and Reform Commission has even tried to quantify the dream, claiming China "has already realised 62.5 per cent" of it. But, for the likes of People's Liberation Army officer, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, the only thing that will make the China dream come true is for China to match the military power of the US.
No one is asking the crucial question why China needs another dream after the tragic end of a "harmonious world", which was a dream of Xi 's predecessor, Hu Jintao . The real world, both the Chinese and the outside world, has in fact become ever more precarious and disharmonious.
There is one crucial difference between the two. The dream of a "harmonious world" was primarily meant for foreign consumption, but it wrongly assumed that the world was ready to believe in China's "peaceful rise".
The China dream's primary audience is at home, hence it can become a rallying call for popular participation that a "harmonious world" could not, for the latter only represented the elite's imagination about the real world. The catastrophic foreign policy in the past decade is the hard proof.
Despite the obsession with this new catchphrase, few seem to know what the China dream is. Among the dazzling variety of interpretations, at least three broad versions can be found. First, restoring China's past glory and status; second, repeating a century-old dream to have a "modern, rich and powerful" state; and, third, making Chinese people happy so as to maintain social stability. But if we scrutinise all three, it appears the last two are universal dreams of any functioning nation-state, while the only unique characteristic of the China dream is the first, which reflects the proclivity of the traditional Chinese thought pattern: the dream of returning to a golden age, whether legendary or real.
The key word therefore is "restoration". But what is the golden age? Xi does not explain. This is a very smart political move, for a Chinese golden age could be interpreted as a civilisational legacy as well as modern revolutionary heritage. Thus, we have a one-size-fits-all dream that can attract a maximum number of people. Cultural conservatives are happy with the implication for reviving Confucian tradition; modernists are not averse to the idea because the dream leaves space for further liberalisation of the system; and the communist veterans and their descendants, the princelings, feel they will not lose their entitlement since the golden age can be readily attributed to the heroism of the communist revolution.
It is not surprising that Xi has already acquired a reputation as a "super-balancer". In a recent speech at the party school, he stressed once again the need for studying history. It makes sense, for only with a profound sense of historical continuity can the Chinese acquire a kind of political fusion on national unity to move beyond entrenched vested-interest and ideological divisions.
More significantly, this represents a serious change of the traditional communist perspective on China's recent past - blaming everything on Confucian tradition and foreign powers during the "century of humiliation" since the opium wars. Xi seems to have realised that, to start serious reform, he must build the broadest possible base of popular support, which has been dangerously eroding in the past decades. He also recognises that a cause that can include all walks of life must start with eradicating official corruption.
Nevertheless, the political interpretation of the China dream should not be pushed too far, as a dream is a long-term goal. Its realisation has to depend not just on hard work, but also on the right decisions made at the right time. Many contingent factors are unpredictable.
Thus, the best way to fulfil the dream is to revamp the existing political structure. The nasty features inherited from a dead culture of the former Soviet Union is a key obstacle to sound decision-making and national unity. The only way to make the system work is to create genuine political representation with direct elections and constitutional guarantees.
Of course, under the current political conditions of high social tension, any shock therapy could trigger a violent revolution. Thus the leadership has to be careful not to raise premature popular expectations of the China dream. For example, it could be used by some to legitimise dreams of destruction. In particular, the nationalistic dream of becoming a superpower, or even a global hegemon, could plunge China into disaster.
Although the China dream can be a good and effective rallying call for national unity, the dream must not be allowed to trigger an identity crisis. The Freudian dream of killing one's father to possess one's mother makes no intuitive sense to the traditional Chinese mind.
But even a happy dream may end up being destructive. We should look to the famous dream of Zhuangzi, an ancient Taoist sage, in which he dreamed he had turned into a butterfly and was flying happily around. Yet, when he woke up, he found that he could not determine whether he was Zhuangzi who dreamt he was a butterfly, or whether he was the butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi.
Both dreams are happy ones, but the identity crisis could still lead to a colossal misjudgment. Therefore, China has to be aware of the risk of developing a split personality through politicising a dream of national restoration.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva