Xi Jinping

Just what is Xi Jinping's 'Chinese dream' and 'Chinese renaissance'?

Observers differ on how to interpret the incoming president's new catchphrases, but it could well mean a much more assertive China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 8:46am

Every new communist leader has a favourite phrase. These slogans are often seen as something which defines their rule and their attempt to leave behind a "glorious page" in history.

Former president Jiang Zemin had the "theory of the three represents" (the Communist Party represents advanced productive forces, advanced culture and interests of the broad masses) and "relatively prosperous society"; President Hu Jintao used a "harmonious society" and "scientific concept of development"; and president-to-be Xi Jinping , just weeks after being installed as party general secretary, has "Chinese dream" and "Chinese renaissance".

During a visit to an exhibition in Beijing on November 29, Xi first revealed his vision of rule in the coming decades by saying, "to realise the renaissance of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history".

The renaissance of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history
Xi Jinping

Xi has spoken of the Chinese dream and Chinese renaissance, or fu xing in Putonghua, on several occasions since then. The phrases caught the imagination of officials, the media and millions of Chinese internet users. He has said China is "closer to the goal of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".

But what is not so clear is how Xi defines the Chinese dream and Chinese renaissance.

Even before the 18th party congress, hopes were high that Xi - the son of a revolutionary leader who helped oversee the nation's post-Mao economic transformation - could bring about meaningful change to the nation, which faces unprecedented challenges in its quest to realise its dream of modernisation.

Many believe the new leader is trying to mobilise domestic support for his agenda of continuing reform and opening up, by inspiring people towards a Chinese Dream - the title of a 1987 play about a Chinese couple dreaming of success in the United States.

"It serves to galvanise the people's support and rally the public around the new administration's economic and political agenda," said Liu Kang, director of Duke University's China Research Centre in the US.

"The Chinese dream is about solving China's problems," said Zheng Bijian , a leading party theorist and former executive vice-president of the Central Party School.

Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at University of Sydney, said he saw the Chinese renaissance "mostly in the context of a peaceful rise, and China returning to a status it once enjoyed before modernity set in".

"For a China dream, I guess the emotional message is to the fore," Brown said.

Some have interpreted it as a call to implement an ambitious programme, set by the just-ended party congress to realise the goals of "completing the building of a moderately prosperous society when the party celebrates its 100th birthday in 2021, and the building of a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and modernised socialist country when the new China marks its 100th anniversary in 2049".

Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said it was not yet clear how much of Xi's Chinese dream was replicated in the Chinese renaissance.

Shortly after Xi's remarks, internet users began to compare the Chinese dream with the American dream - a set of ideals which includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work. Like the American dream, the rapid rise of China's economy in three decades allows a new middle class to dream about the symbols of success and affluence in clothing, homes, furniture, cars, computers and mobile phones.

But for the first pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower, the American dream started with their voyage to a new world across the sea, where they could escape from religious persecution. This spirit was formalised in the Declaration of Independence some one and a half centuries later, which proclaims all men to be equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

Historian James Truslow Adams popularised the phrase "American dream" in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. He wrote: "It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

Martin Luther King Jnr wove it into the civil rights movement in his celebrated "I have a dream" speech, in which he saw an upgrading of one's personality as the utmost ideal of the American dream.

The Chinese dream as it is now being discussed is more a vision of the world's longest surviving civilisation taking its place in the world, in pursuit of a version of Chinese exceptionalism that will steer country and people to fulfil their collective destiny.

Brown says the Chinese dream echoes the American dream in that it acts as a cultural counterbalance of sorts. But he says the vision is contaminated by a sense that a new political elite, desperate for support from the public, have few means to win over the people except through appeals to nationalism and by making them richer.

"For hearts and minds stuff, the party still leaves people cold," said Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Tsang said: "The Chinese dream is not the dream of the people of China freely articulated by them. It is 'the Chinese dream' to be articulated on their behalf by Xi and the Communist Party."

On the mainland, the idea of a renaissance and what it would represent has also been widely discussed online, with suggestions ranging from "social justice", "less corruption" and "a better life" to "freedom and democracy".

Historians point to many periods they consider to have represented a Chinese renaissance, such as the Song dynasty (960-1279), together with the Tang dynasty (618-907) and the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220). All were times of economic growth, artistic achievement and numerous scientific advances.

The idea of a modern Chinese renaissance has been popularised by political leaders and intellectuals throughout the last century. A group of Peking University professors gave the name "renaissance" to a monthly magazine movement.

The May Fourth Movement, the 1919 upsurge in nationalism and re-evaluation of cultural institutions that helped usher in modern China, was also described by intellectual Hu Shi as the Chinese renaissance due to its striking similarities to Europe's Age of Enlightenment (cultural movement of intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries), which is also described in Putonghua as a renaissance.

The May Fourth Movement was based on the Western ideas of democracy and science, while the Age of Enlightenment advanced the notion that modernism was centred on individualism, rights and science, a uniquely Western heritage.

Almost all non-Western civilisations, including China, attempted to import the political, social and economic values of modernism to rebuild their own cultures in order to achieve modernisation. But while historians agree that various periods of Chinese history deserve the "renaissance" title, they say all also shared one defect; the absence of a conscious recognition of their historical mission.

The communist revolution was also intended to achieve a "Chinese renaissance", promising "a prosperous, free and democratic new China".

While prosperity eventually arrived under Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, democracy and freedom remain elusive. Many observers feel Xi is tapping more deeply into that nationalistic vein than his recent predecessors, perhaps recognising that the traditional communist ideology no longer has popular appeal.

As the new Chinese leadership begins to write the script for the next act of their country's reform, it appears as if Xi Jinping is finding nationalism an irresistible ingredient in his effort to galvanise his people

"As the new Chinese leadership begins to write the script for the next act of their country's reform, it appears as if Xi Jinping is finding nationalism an irresistible ingredient in his effort to galvanise his people," said Orville Schell, a veteran China watcher who is co-writing a book on China's modern quest for wealth and power.

Leaders know that nationalism aimed at foreign powers is a powerful undercurrent in Chinese society. Just weeks before Xi took power, anti-Japanese protests erupted in mainland cities over a territorial dispute.

Xi's brand of modernism, analysts say, could mix bolder economic policies with anti-corruption campaigns, a vigorous military build-up and a muscular foreign policy. The combination is reminiscent of the Self-Strengthening Movement in the late 19th century, when some reformist political leaders and intellectuals sought reforms to revive a weakening Qing dynasty (1644-1911) harassed by Western powers and Japan.

But Gregory Kulacki, China project manager and senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, does not believe Xi's statement represents a dramatic departure from past practice.

"Those concerned about Xi's choice of words should watch CCTV's six-part series from 2007, The Road to Renaissance," said Kulacki, who lived and worked in China for over two decades.

The documentary tells the familiar story of an ancient civilisation, fractured by the dissolution of its traditional culture and exploited by Western imperialists, that is now in the process of restoration under the leadership of the Communist Party.

Rejecting alarmist rhetoric that suggested Xi's statement is aimed at transforming the People's Republic into a 21st century version of the Third Reich or late Meiji Japan, Kulacki says the aims of the Chinese renaissance are modest: to achieve the status of a "basically modern" nation.

Brown said with the catchphrases, "there's an attempt to dabble with idealism but in a controlled way, to leverage off ideas of some sort of historic roots to China's new uber-modernistic aspirations and identity".

But he warns Xi's dictums run "the risk of surrendering to impractical idealism in ways Hu's 'scientific development' and 'harmonious society' never did".

Tsang says the Chinese renaissance has more to do with promoting China's stature in the world than any idea of liberating the minds of the people.

"This is about advancing the re-emergence of China, which had a great civilisation and the capacity to be looked up to in ways beyond what the US has so far managed," he said.

"Nothing is wrong in wanting China to be great. But it must be uncomfortable for the rest of the world, particularly China's neighbours, to see a new general secretary who wants to be identified as the man who reasserts China's illustrious past - which, despite Chinese rhetoric was primarily the result of establishing hegemony," Tsang said.

"What it all boils down to is that we will have to get used to a more assertive China under the leadership of Xi."