The Chinese leadership may have good reason to regret taking bad advice from its ideological team. The idea of declaring a new political slogan, the "China Dream", at the outset of the new regime has backfired so badly that one wonders if the catchphrase can outlast Hu Jintao's "harmonious society", which survived for more than two years.
It would have been a good catchphrase, except for one crucial detail overlooked by the new leadership: the China Dream as an all-embracing slogan can no longer capture the popular enthusiasm, for there is little public trust left in the ruling elite.
The zealots of the party propaganda machine have made things worse. The first sign of debacle came, ironically, courtesy of the chief government mouthpiece, the People's Daily. Late last month, the paper started an online poll designed to add to the so-called "positive energy" thought to have been released in society by the exciting new dream.
The four questions, taken directly from Xi Jinping's speeches related to the concept, asked people whether they were confident about: the leaders' courage for reform; the benefits of "socialism with Chinese characteristics"; the communist party as a whole; and the one-party-dominated political system. By the middle of this month, the negative answers had reached over 75 per cent and the paper had to take down the poll. But the damage had been done.
A new leadership in China usually enjoys a honeymoon period, often for about two years. But this time, the honeymoon seems considerably shorter. The reason is simple: Xi is dealing with a different party and society. The political ground is shifting and the party's mystical halo of infallibility is fading.
For one, the population in general does not trust the system. So far, the new leadership has talked the talk but walked too slowly. The high expectations for political reform and the anti-corruption campaign have fizzled out considerably. As long as the new Politburo continues stalling on disclosing the personal assets of its 25 members, few have confidence that the anti-corruption campaign is serious. Therefore, the China Dream could easily be seen as another plot to solidify, rather than destroy, the rapidly ossifying politics of vested interests.
Another reason for the China Dream's hard landing is the low morale of the party's rank and file. Of the 80 million members, only a tiny fraction has access to the benefits accrued from vested-interest politics. In other words, the top echelon is degenerating but the rank and file has no power to get rid of them.
In fact, the popular enthusiasm for the new leadership is largely built on the clean reputation of three top leaders, Xi himself, Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan . The intra-party expectation was initially so high that they were thought to be the saviours of the party and the state.
Previous leaders also launched campaigns to ostensibly deal with official corruption but nothing was achieved; recall Jiang Zemin's "spiritual civilisation" campaign and Hu's "eight honours and eight shames" campaign. They disappeared as fast as official corruption spread; in private, these campaigns became a joke for the party elite.
Xi has inherited a party that is rotten to the core. But, as Chinese history has demonstrated time and again, a few dynamic and incorruptible reformers at the top can make a real difference, but they have to fight a risky battle to reverse the trend of dynastic decline. The China Dream was designed to allow leaders to avoid taking this risk, by trying to plaster over the cracks of the system. It was not meant to eradicate real problems, and would not necessarily add to the "positive energy" of society.
On the contrary, a dream could easily become a powerful expression of discontent with the current state of affairs and longing for an alternative. This is why the Chinese are split in the heated debate over the meaning and content of the China Dream, for it arouses the imagination and is mobilising support both for and against the system. Clearly, the "positive energy" camp is not winning this battle. There is a complete disconnect between popular sentiment and the official media.
It is therefore a mistake to try to get political momentum going with an abstract slogan. Yet, such a misstep could still be corrected before disaster strikes. First, the propaganda machine must stop its impossible mission of trying to turn an amorphous concept into a working ideology. Xi should refocus on the concrete steps of rebuilding the reputation of the party, without being distracted by the premature thought of creating a new theory that can be written into the next party constitution.
Xi already seems to know what to do. Lately he appears to be revving up his efforts to clean up the party, which will soon launch a year-long campaign to crack down on the ills of excessive bureaucracy, formalism and extravagance. Xi urged party members to "look into a mirror, neaten his dress, take a bath and have the illness treated". More significantly, it will start from the top down.
In conjunction, the public is being urged to report any cases of corruption to the media. It seems that the new leadership is somehow back on track.
The new campaign will surely encounter stiff resistance. Here, a comparison with Vatican politics may be illuminating. The papacy is no democracy, yet the secret election by the conclave of an ascetic and dynamic Jesuit to lead the Catholic Church does not diminish the Vatican's legitimacy, because the morale of the rank and file of the church hierarchy is high, and popular enthusiasm about the church sustains the expansion of its global influence.
In China, the leadership is secretly elected by a communist conclave, and its core members may also be ascetic and dynamic, but the party elite are no Jesuits and popular enthusiasm about the system is low.
Drastic action is thus required to rescue the system. The party's self-cleansing campaign may have its limits, but it is a good start. Whether the leadership will stick to its guns remains to be seen. To avoid repeating the failure of past campaigns, the party must encourage intra-party democracy and invite mass participation. Its success this time will be most critical for the political future of China.
Lanxin Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva