Interpreting Xi’s “Chinese Dream”
Is President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” a vision of social equity or global supremacy? Keio University’s Tomoki Kamo explores this crucial question in the light of mounting political challenges facing China’s one-party state.
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Where is the government of President Xi Jinping leading the Chinese nation?
The official line is that Xi government is charting a course toward the “Chinese dream,” which Xi describes as “the great renewal of the Chinese nation.”  Realization of this dream, we are told, involves the achievement of China’s “two 100-year goals”: building a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021, when the CPC will celebrate its 100th anniversary; and building an “affluent, strong, civilized and harmonious socialist modern country” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
This, then, is the core of the “Chinese dream.” But the question remains: What policy course will the Xi regime follow in pursuit of those goals?
For the international community, the main question is whether Xi intends to pursue his “dream” in the capacity of a reformer or that of a challenger. At present, he shows indications of doing both. Xi the reformer speaks of addressing the social side effects of China’s extraordinary growth and development under the “reform and opening” policy and addressing the diverse needs of Chinese society.
Xi the challenger appears bent on building a “rich and powerful” China by establishing China’s place as one of the rule makers of today’s international order and by aggressively protecting and promoting China’s interests in every part of the world, even at the risk of exacerbating tensions with other countries in the region. The international community is particularly anxious to see what sort of stance Xi’s government will take vis-à-vis the development of new regulatory frameworks in such key areas as cyberspace and Arctic sea routes.
Xi’s Unstated Goal
To predict the Xi regime’s policy course, we need first of all to grasp the government’s priorities. The top priority now, as in the past, is to maintain the stability of the current one-party system under the CPC.  This is the underlying purpose of Xi’s “Chinese dream” initiative. To fully understand the new administration’s policies, in short, we must understand how they contribute to stable one-party rule in China.
The task can be approached from two directions. One is to analyze what the current government is doing, or might do, to bolster the party’s “performance legitimacy”—that is, its right to govern by virtue of its achievements. In this case, analysis centers on the efficacy of the Xi regime’s specific policy initiatives. The second approach focuses on the structure of single-party rule in China, identifying the means by which the political system has functioned to maintain the stability of the one-party system in recent years. Having done so, we should be able to assess the outlook for continued stability by monitoring changes in those features. Here I would like to take the latter route, focusing on the institutions supporting China’s one-party system.
Sources of Political Stability
Income and wealth disparities have widened dramatically in China over the past few decades, and protests of various kinds have broken out in response to the perceived lack of fairness, equality, and justice. Such protests are a destabilizing factor for the Communist regime, but at this point they are relatively isolated, and there appears to be little risk of their coalescing into a genuine threat to the system. Nor is there any indication that a political force capable of displacing the CPC (the party’s biggest fear) is taking shape. How have the CPC and the state government maintained such political stability since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989? In recent years this has been the central question consuming specialists in the field of contemporary Chinese studies.
Scholars have offered up a number of explanations. Some have posited that, while the CPC’s governing apparatus is in a protracted state of atrophy, the party has reinforced its grip with a number of internal reforms and adaptive measures. Others have highlighted the way in which the CPC has strengthened its control by “co-optation,” absorbing China’s key social actors into the ruling apparatus. But almost all agree that the CPC’s base of power remains secure—either because outsiders tend to underestimate the governing capacity of the CPC or because the system has compensated for weaknesses in governing capacity by adapting to changes in the social environment. 
I would like to approach the question a little differently, highlighting the political role of nominally democratic institutions—national assemblies, elections, and parties—in authoritarian states like China’s.
Quasi-Democracy as a Tool of One-Party Rule
Most authoritarian states have a national assembly and political parties. This means that they must also hold elections. Of course, these are not free and fair elections but carefully orchestrated affairs. Still, there are costs associated with all of these institutions. Why, then, do the vast majority of authoritarian states—including North Korea—maintain them?
The reason becomes clear once we understand the political function of nominally democratic institutions in authoritarian states like China. Recent analyses have shown that such institutions, frequently dismissed as window dressing, are in fact an important political tool of authoritarian rulers. They play a key role in preserving the stability of authoritarian regimes by providing forums and frameworks for negotiating and building relationships with influential organizations and individuals that have the potential to be either allies or political rivals.  For this reason, authoritarian governments accept the costs of establishing quasi-democratic institutions as the price they must pay for political stability.
This principle applies to China no less than to other authoritarian states.
Although there are a number of ways to gauge the political importance of these institutions in China, I have chosen to focus on coverage in the state-sanctioned media, specifically Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily). In recent years, the newspaper has reported with ever-increasing frequency on the attendance of China’s top government leaders at plenary meetings of the National People’s Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
During the Eighth National People’s Congress (March 1993), the paper carried 44 articles pertaining to the meeting, including items reporting on the attendance of top government figures. That number swelled to 186 during the first session of the Ninth NPC (March 1998), then soared to 910 during the first session of the Tenth NPC (March 2003). It dropped to 683 during the first session of the Eleventh NPC (March 2008) only to jump to 995 this past March during the first plenary session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress.
News coverage by a party organ like Renmin Ribao naturally reflects the political intent of those at the top. Based on the sharp increase in articles pertaining to the National People’s Congress, it seems safe to conclude that the party is eager to convey the importance it places on the role of that body in Chinese government. (The same can be said of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s other major quasi-democratic institution at the national level.)
But to whom is it trying to convey this? Probably not to the masses so much as to key actors in Chinese society. China today has a number of increasingly influential social and economic elites outside the Communist Party, and the party needs to understand their interests and take them into account when making policy decisions. The deputies to the NPC and the CPPCC include important members of these non-CPC elites. They are, in essence, the friends and allies of the one-party state. Providing these social actors with an avenue for limited input in the political process affords the CPC access to the information it needs for policymaking purposes. The growing number of media references to the NPC and the CPPCC reflects an effort to convince those actors that the government and the party take them seriously. It signals a realization among China’s leaders that the NPC and CPPCC have become essential underpinnings of the single-party state owing to the growing influence of these non-party elites.
Judging again from such official news coverage, the Xi regime is acutely aware of the need to take into account the interests of actors outside of the Communist Party. In his keynote speech at the closing meeting of the first session of the Twelfth NPC last March, Xi Jinping affirmed the need for the CPC to forge strong ties with as many other key players as possible. Specifically, he called on the party to (1) bolster solidarity and cooperation with minor, registered non-CPC parties, as well as those unaffiliated with any political group; (2) strengthen and develop ethnic relations domestically, operating on the principles of equality, solidarity, mutual assistance, and harmony; and (3) encourage members of the religious community and believers to play an active role in the nation’s economic and social development.
The CPC’s Precarious Foundations
Some may applaud this inclusiveness as a healthy sign of the new administration’s awareness of changing social conditions and the Communist Party’s ability to adapt to changes and challenges. But such assessments miss the key point.
More than anything, these moves to appease interests outside the CPC reveal the increasingly precarious foundations of one-party rule in China. The oft-cited atrophy of the CPC as a ruling party is undeniable. As Masaharu Hishida has pointed out, the party’s organizational “grip” over Chinese society has waned dramatically.  Although it still has a virtual monopoly over the nation’s political resources, the CPC has lost the capacity to make unilateral policy decisions. Policymaking today means listening to and taking into account the demands of a broad range of socio-political actors. Moreover, the government is fast approaching the limits of its capacity to adapt to the changes sweeping Chinese society.
It may seem as if the CPC has maintained its grip on power over the years thanks to foresight and a successful long-term strategy. But the CPC’s reputation for long-term planning is built on a narrative constructed after the fact. The narrative surrounding the “reform and opening” policy is a classic example. The simplified version of history has it that the policy sprang into being at the third plenary session of the Eleventh CPC Central Committee in December 1978. But in reality it evolved slowly and fitfully, through a process of trail and error. The notion that the strategy behind China’s subsequent growth and development emerged fully formed from the head of Deng Xiaoping is a myth. 
If Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” is predicated on the continued survival and stability of China’s Communist regime, then it may indeed be no more than a dream.
Achieving the kind of renewal Xi Jinping has promised will be no easy task, and the Communist government today has precious little room to maneuver. In realistic terms, his best option is surely the path of internal reform. The reason is that his options in the role of a challenger to the global system will be severely limited by the necessity of maintaining one-party rule despite the declining influence of the CPC and the growing clout of other social actors.
But it is entirely possible that Xi will opt for the other route, challenging the international order and building up a “rich and powerful” China so as to secure the support of the populace and China’s key socio-political actors, thereby shoring up the Communist regime’s legitimacy. This is possibility for which we must prepare ourselves.
1. “Xi Pledges ‘Great Renewal of Chinese Nation,’” Xinhuanet, November 29, 2012, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-11/29/c_132008231.htm .
2. The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, http://www.Gov.Cn/Ldhd/2010-12/06/Content_1760381.Htm .
3. See Jie Chen and Bruce J. Dickson, Allies of the State: China’s Private Entrepreneurs and Democratic Change (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); Teresa Wright, Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China’s Reform Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010); David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008); Kevin O’Brien, “Where ‘Jasmine’ Means Tea, Not a Revolt,” New York Times , April 2, 2011; and Bruce J. Dickson, “No ‘Jasmine’ for China,” Current History , September 2011.
4. Jennifer Gandhi, Political Institutions under Dictatorship (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
5. Masao Hishida, “Chugoku Kyosanto: Kiki no shinkokuka ka, kiban no saichuzo ka” (The Communist Party of China: Deepening Crisis or Recasting of the Base?) in Kazuko Mori and Shigeto Sonoda, eds., Chugoku Mondai (China Issues) (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2012), pp. 2–33.
6. See Akio Takahara, “Gendai Chugoku-shi ni okeru 1978-nen no kakkisei ni tsuite” (On 1978 as a Watershed in Modern Chinese History), in Tomoki Kamo et al., eds., Chugoku kaikaku kaiho e no tenkan: 1978 -nen o koete (China’s Shift to Reform and Opening: Beyond 1978) (Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2011), pp. 121–36.