In search of a dream

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Chinese swimmers hold aloft a banner featuring a portrait of Xi Jinping, China's new leader, bearing the words "Service, health for the people" at an event organised at Nanning in China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on January 1. Photo: AP

Migrant workers ride past a checkpoint in Fengkai, Guangdong province, on February 4. The new guidelines announced by the State Cabinet on February 5 pledged to take forward the reforms of household registration, which at present denies migrant workers access to social welfare benefits when they move to cities. Photo: CHINA DAILY/REUTERS

A poor woman sorts garbage near a residential compound in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, on February 6. China has broad plans to reform income distribution. Photo: REUTERS

The disputed islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, have emerged as the biggest foreign policy challenge for Xi at the start of his term. Photo: REUTERS

A stack of the latest edition of Southern Weekend at a news stand in Guangzhou. The move to censor an editorial in the weekly newspaper triggered outrage among its staff. Photo: Vincent Yu/AP

A debate in China about what vision should guide the country’s politics in the next decade has shed some light on how the new leader Xi Jinping plans to govern.

A VISIT TO A MUSEUM WAS XI JINPING’S first major public engagement in the Chinese capital, Beijing, after he took over as the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) next leader. In December, the General Secretary strolled through an exhibition at the recently renovated National Museum, a grand, sprawling building that sits on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square. An exhibition based on the theme “The Road to National Rejuvenation” had opened in the museum around a month after the CPC concluded its once-in-10-years leadership transition congress, which selected Xi as the party’s leader for the next decade. During his short visit to the exhibition, Xi, accompanied by the six other members of the newly selected Politburo Standing Committee, delivered what has since been seen by political analysts in Beijing as the new General Secretary’s first major policy speech after he took office on November 15.

Xi outlined his vision of “the Chinese Dream”, an idea that would guide the CPC’s political outlook and decision-making in the next decade. He said: “Everybody has their own ideal, pursuit and dream. Today, everybody is talking about the Chinese dream. I firmly believe that by the time the CPC celebrates its 100th anniversary [in 2021] we will no doubt have achieved the goal of completely building a well-off society, and by the time the People’s Republic celebrates its 100th anniversary [in 2049], we will become a prosperous, strong, democratic, civilised and harmonious socialist modernised country on its way to the ultimate great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This is the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern history.”

The “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” ( fuxing) and “the Chinese Dream” ( zhongguo meng) are two themes that have found prominence in Xi’s speeches since he has taken over as the head of the CPC. In the 10-minute opening address on November 15, Xi used the phrase “fuxing” no less than three times. China’s revival after “a century of humiliation” is hardly a new idea in CPC politics, and has been routinely invoked by nationalists who are pushing for China to take a more prominent, assertive role on the world stage. But in the past decade under Hu Jintao, the phrase, to some degree, went out of favour as Hu emphasised “a harmonious society” at home and a “peaceful rise” overseas.

In his December speech, Xi placed “national rejuvenation” at the centre of his idea of the “Chinese Dream”. “The severity of misery the Chinese nation has suffered and the enormity of sacrifices it has made in modern times are scarcely matched in the world,” he said. “After more than 170 years of continuous struggle since the Opium War, however, the Chinese people are finally in control of their own destiny and hard at work in the greatest development drive the world has ever seen. Today we are closer than ever to the goal of achieving the Chinese nation’s great rejuvenation and are more confident than ever that we have what it takes to succeed.” Xi said a lesson from history was that “our personal future and fate are closely linked to the country’s and the nation’s”. “We are fine only when the country and the nation are,” he concluded. “We must unite all members of the Chinese nation and build it into a great country and nation.”

Xi is yet to spell out his specific ideas for political and economic reforms; a clearer picture of his views is likely to emerge after he takes over from Hu Jintao as President at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), or Parliament, which opens on March 5. The NPC session is also likely to shed some light on what the new leadership is likely to prioritise in terms of economic policy and political reforms in its first year in office. Xi’s invocation of the “Chinese Dream” has, in the weeks since his December speech, sparked off an interesting debate in China on what vision should guide the country’s politics in the next decade, as different sections across the Chinese political spectrum push their agendas before the new leadership assumes full control in March.

The CPC’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, in a commentary that was disseminated widely across media outlets shortly after Xi’s speech, listed what it described as the “three main driving forces behind the Chinese dream”. The first, the commentary said, was “the pursuit of economic lift-off, livelihood improvement, and social and environmental progress”. The second driving force involved “the pursuit of national wealth and military strength, national dignity, sovereign integrity, national unity, and world peace”, while the third was “the pursuit of fairness and justice, democracy and the rule of law”. How the CPC plans to balance and prioritise the three goals has emerged as the focus of the debate.

While conservative voices have highlighted the second driving force—the pursuit of national strength—as the pressing national priority, those on the liberal end of the spectrum have emphasised addressing economic inequalities and pushing political reforms. The former group has found prominent mention in state media outlets, particularly against the backdrop of rising tensions with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which has emerged as the biggest foreign policy challenge for Xi at the start of his term. People’s Daily, for instance, opined that the Chinese Dream “advocates putting greater good and national interest above individual interest”, contrasting with the American dream that “implies an opportunity for Americans to achieve prosperity through hard work regardless of their background”. “Nation in Chinese is ‘guojia’, which composes guo (country) and jia (family),” argued Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by People’s Daily. “This is not a coincidence, but vividly illustrates the closely tied fates of the country and families. Throughout history, a nation’s prosperity has played a core role in shaping the individuals’ fate. The ‘China Dream’ belongs to the whole nation as well as each individual.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, a growing chorus of voices has seized upon the other two driving forces, calling on Xi to mark the start of his term by pushing economic and political reforms. Xi has already signalled his willingness to push forward moves to address income inequalities. On February 5, the State Council, or Cabinet, announced new guidelines to reform income distribution, starting with increasing the share of profits that state-owned enterprises have to pass on to the government by 5 percentage points. Whether or not the moves are a precursor to bolder reforms of the state sector, which many Chinese economists have called for as an essential step to creating more balanced growth and having a level playing field, remains to be seen. The guidelines also included rules for government officials to report their incomes and real estate assets. The measures announced a target of reducing the number of people living below the poverty line of 2,300 yuan per capita annual income (Rs.19,780) by 80 million by 2015.

Economic challenges

Without providing specific details, the guidelines pledged to take forward the long-discussed reforms of the household registration or “hukou” system, which denies migrant workers access to social welfare benefits when they move to cities. At the NPC session in March, the government will face calls to unveil measures that will, at the very least, guarantee social security to migrant workers in second and third-tier cities, if not in the major first-tier centres of migration. The guidelines are committed to expanding the proportion of expenditure on social security by 2 percentage points by 2015. The first meeting of the Central Economic Working Conference, a top policy working group, following the leadership transition announced “six musts” that would determine economic policy in the coming year. These included “expediting” economic restructuring, advancing urban-rural integration, “prioritising people’s interest above everything else… so that development benefits reach the whole nation in a fairer manner”, and “deepening reform in an all-round way… and clearing obstacles in the system that hinder development”.

Creating more equitable growth must define the “Chinese Dream”, argued Liu Shengjun, an economist who has called for faster reforms, in an essay published in the February issue of the pro-reform Caixin magazine and circulated widely on social media websites. Liu highlighted Xi’s remarks in his November 15 address, where he spoke of the Chinese people’s expectations of “a better education system, more job stability, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living conditions and a more beautiful environment” as defining the Chinese Dream. Liu added to Xi’s words a list of 10 wishes for the next 10 years, which included improving food safety, decreasing pollution, bridging the wealth gap, curtailing corruption and “remarkable progress in restraining the misuse of power”. “Acknowledging these problems,” he wrote, “will help one to understand why even though the Chinese economy rules the world, public discontent is growing.”

Push for constitutionalism

A trickier challenge for Xi is with regard to carrying out political reforms. The new General Secretary faced his first major test in office on New Year’s Day, when the censorship of a bold editorial titled “The Chinese Dream is the Dream of Constitutionalism” that appeared in Southern Weekend, a Guangdong-based publication known for its independent journalism, triggered strong protests. The editorial, ironically, had taken its cue from Xi’s “Chinese Dream” speech. The newspaper wrote, echoing the aspirations of many among China’s progressive sections, that it hoped the Chinese Constitution “can be realised in practice someday soon”. “This is the only way this ancient nation of ours can complete its arduous transition; this is the only way our nation and its people can stand strong once again on firm ground,” said the editorial, a copy of which was published on the website of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.

“We have already today a China where one can dream. And this is an age already in which dreams can be grasped,” the editorial said. “We passed through the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, and we have spent more than 30 years gradually returning to reason and sense . . .Today, we dream not only of material prosperity, but even more of spiritual abundance; we dream not only that our country can be strong, but even more that the people of our country can enjoy dignity.... Only if constitutionalism is realised and power effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently, and only then can every person believe in their hearts that they are free to live their own lives. Only then can we build a truly free and strong nation.” The editorial was removed before the newspaper went to press and replaced by another commentary penned by the CPC’s propaganda chief in Guangdong, Tuo Zhen. The commentary simply reprinted an earlier People’s Daily editorial, declaring China was “now closer than we have ever been to this Chinese Dream”.

The move to censor the editorial triggered outrage among Southern Weekend’s staff, who demanded the resignation of Tuo and threatened to go on strike. Like all media outlets in China, the newspaper ordinarily tolerates a level of censorship. Tuo’s move to directly replace the newspaper’s content was, however, seen as a regressive change in the status quo. While the stand-off was initially seen as a test of Xi’s possible reformist inclinations, he handled the dispute smartly, reinforcing the image he has built as a pragmatic consensus-builder. Assuring the newspaper that similar intrusions would not be repeated by provincial propaganda authorities, Xi averted a strike by journalists in one of China’s most respected media outlets—one that could have easily spread to other organisations. At the same time, he did not remove Tuo, a decision that might have led to Xi being seen by conservatives as a weak leader caving in to protests.

Southern Weekend’s call for constitutionalism as a way to promote the rule of law and check the party’s power has since received much support among liberal sections, who have been encouraged by Xi’s own comments in a December speech that marked the 30th anniversary of the current Constitution. “We must firmly establish, throughout society, the authority of the Constitution and the law and allow the overwhelming masses to fully believe in the law,” Xi said. “No organisation or individual has the privilege to overstep the Constitution and the law, and any violation of the Constitution and the law must be investigated. We must establish mechanisms to restrain and supervise power. Power must be made responsible and must be supervised, and we must ensure that the power bestowed by the people is constantly used for the interests of the people.”

While his comments were seized upon by progressives who are hopeful of bold reform moves under the new leadership, Xi also made it quite clear that the CPC would remain in firm control of pushing the reforms process in carefully calibrated steps and would not contemplate any major measures that would significantly limit its power. During his visit to Guangdong in December, described by the Chinese media as Xi’s own “Southern Tour”, echoing Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1992 trip to push economic reforms, Xi, in a speech to party members, warned against reforms that would lead China towards “a Western political system”. The speech, which was not disseminated publicly, was circulated internally among party members a month later. Contents of the speech were posted online by the veteran Beijing journalist Gao Yu.

“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” Xi asked. “Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken,” he said, according to a translation by the writer Cao Yaxue. “In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight. It’s a profound lesson for us. To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organisations on all levels.”

Xi said he did not agree “with the idea that China’s reform has been falling behind in some regard”. “The key is what to reform and what not to reform. There are things we have not changed, things we cannot change, and things we will not change no matter how long a time passes…. Some people define reform as changes towards the universal values of the West, the Western political system, or it will not constitute ‘real’ reform. This is a stealthy tampering of the concept and a misunderstanding of our reform. Of course, we must uphold the banner of reform, but our reform is reform that keeps us moving forward on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. We will walk neither the closed and rigid old path, nor the evil path of changing the flag.” He cautioned that if the party “loses sight of our vision as communists, we will lose our direction and succumb to utilitarianism and pragmatism”. “The great renewal of the Chinese nation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese nation over the last couple of hundred years,” he concluded. “The ‘China Dream’ is an ideal. But of course, as communists, we should have a higher ideal, and that is, Communism.”

How Xi takes the party forward, balances competing expectations, and addresses the calls for change will be revealed only as he gradually takes control following his appointment as President at the March Parliament session. However, it is clear that Xi faces a challenging balancing act as he fleshes out his own vision and ideology for the CPC in the coming decade. As Gao Yu, the journalist, wrote in an analysis of Xi’s “Southern tour” and his first few months in office: “On the one hand, he wants to maintain the life of the CPC; on the other, he wants to revamp the house in the hope of restoring the kind of authority and legitimacy Mao Zedong enjoyed at the beginning of Communist China. Such are the guiding principles, and the destination, of his ‘Road to Rejuvenation’.”

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