Written by Kerry Brown

One of the most widely reported acts when Xi Jinping became Party Secretary of the CCP late last year was the highly symbolic visit he made to Shenzhen, sacred territory of the reform and opening up period because of its role one of the first and the most dramatically successful special economic zones. This seemed to imply that Xi was roping himself firmly to the Deng Xiaoping tradition of pragmatic politics, and showing that there were going to be no Maoist-type ideological campaigns.

This is one reason why the `China Dream’ phrase that seems to pepper almost every major utterance made by leaders in Beijing now is a little jarring. It is hard to imagine Deng, the man who admitted during his Southern Tour in 1992 that he had read less of the key works of Marx, Engels or Lenin than he should have but who simply called their contents `plain truth’ and a guide to practical action based on real experience having much truck with a notion as abstract and vague as `dream.’ Even when he talked of ambitions and goals, he did so in highly practical language – raising living standards, getting richer, making China stronger and greater. It is hard to imagine Deng asking China to dream. It had done enough of that under Mao in the Cultural Revolution, charging towards Utopia and ending up instead in Hell.

For Xi so new into his leadership to introduce this kind of concept needs some explanation. Beneath all the old declarations and statements, there Is evidently enough bewilderment of many inside and outside China about the idea to have prompted an avalanche of explanatory commentary and conference cogitation.  So far, however, no one has come up with the one line definition of what Xi and his fellow elite mean when they talk of this China Dream.

It might be that, at the moment at least, the dream means nothing. I don’t mean by this that the Party is supporting something meaningless, guided by cynical aims, but rather that their strategy is to push a concept out because it wants to hear what Chinese people say they see in it – what their vision of their own country is. In that sense, it is an invitation to a debate about the grand direction of the country. The Party is actually mandating people to work out the vexed question of their ambitions, their identity, and their expectations towards, in particular, the government, and the elite leadership running the country.

Seen that way, `China Dream’ figuring at the heart of a campaign at least has some pragmatic function and strategic intent. It is a relatively safe way of trying to create consensus over a potentially very contentious issue. It isn’t prescriptive, it does try to appeal to people’s imagination, to reach a little into their emotions and to shift the dominant discourse of the Party away from the highly materialistic, mechanical mode that it has used over the last few decades, particularly under Hu Jintao.

There is a danger however. It is perfectly possible the Party will not get a very clear answer during this campaign about what Chinese people think they are and what they are aspiring to and hope for.  There is a precedent for this sort of open invitation to the broader public in the country to say what they think and hope. This was the Hundred Flowers campaign undertaken in 1956-7, when Mao Zedong sanctioned public debate about how the Party was doing. The negative and fractious response was so intense that time he stopped the whole event and started a major Anti-Rightist purge.

Times have changed, of course – but it might be that there are some elements of the China Dream that start appearing that will be unpalatable to the leadership. Dreams, for instance, about deeper internal reform than they are willing to contemplate or about a radically different economic and social order that that existing now. It will be interesting to see just how lose the Party is going to be with this campaign, and at what point it steps in and starts making clear that, whatever great things Chinese people in the 21st century want to dream when they grow rich, having a world without the Party in it isn’t one of them. That, the Party hopes everyone agrees, must be regarded as a nightmare.  We’ll have to wait and see what, and how much, the people are able to dream themselves, and when the Party starts dreaming for them.

Kerry Brown is Executive Director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney, and former Head of Chatham House Asia Programme. Follow him on Twitter @Bkerrychina


  1. Fascinating. The other day on CNR they were reading out listeners’ various individual “Chinese Dreams”, seems to fit with Kerry’s suggested explanation. I didn’t exactly hear any new visions being alluded to (most were along the lines of “My Chinese dream to eat uncontaminated food”) but more interesting stuff could be passing through internal channels — the media’s “eyes and ears” function.

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