Living the China Dream: Can Chinese leaders manage an ascendant Middle Kingdom?

China dazzles. Glittering skyscrapers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou catch the eye of the visitor. Some of the world’s most modern airports greet the international traveler, who then can be whisked across China’s vast distances on state-of-the-art high-speed trains. Luxury stores with names like Gucci and Louis Vuitton line the shopping streets and malls.

China is a land of large numbers. The world’s largest population, 1.3 billion, lives in a huge land area that stretches some 2,000 miles from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the deserts of Central Asia. The populations of some of China’s major provinces exceed the populations of important European countries.

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Xi Jinping, recently installed as China’s president and head of the Chinese Communist Party, talks about the “China Dream” of “rejuvenating the great Chinese nation.” But to what end? That is a question that has many observers wondering.

Since 1979, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping abandoned Marxist orthodoxies and Maoist fantasies and kicked off China’s economic reform, China’s economy has increased more than 10 times over. In 2013 China’s gross domestic product, driven by investment and exports, is expected to reach $13.6 trillion (in purchasing power relative to the dollar), the second largest in the world after the United States, which China is poised to surpass in economic might during this century. Though well over 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty, some 13 percent of the Chinese population—175 million—is estimated to still languish below the poverty line.

The number of Chinese using the Internet—about 580 million and expected by some to grow to over 700 million by 2014—far exceeds that of the total population of the United States. The rapidly modernizing Chinese military, with a land army of 850,000 troops, includes not only an expanding air force, equipped with advanced jet fighters (and even prototype stealth aircraft), but also a navy with increasing force projection capabilities and a significant strategic missile force.

But sometimes getting a clear picture of what is happening in China is difficult. Next to every account of remarkable economic growth and social progress are stories of corruption at all levels of society. State suppression of ethnic minorities in Tibet and in the western province of Xinjiang is severe. Widespread environmental degradation, poisonous air and water pollution and contaminated food, including dangerously adulterated baby formula, are the stuff of headlines. On the social front, vast wealth gaps, increasing income inequality between urban and rural sectors, suppression of religious freedom and freedom of speech and heavy censorship of news and the Internet are both domestic and international issues.

Social explosions have resulted from these tensions and disparities. The number of sometimes violent “mass incidents” is increasing, in which incensed citizens take on local authorities to protest illegal land grabs, police beatings and other official abuse. Some 180,000 urban and rural incidents were counted in 2010—an average of 500 per day.

China’s Epic Scale

It is the China puzzle: everything you hear about China is true, but none of it is reliable. There is progress and repression. To understand this paradox, we must take a long view and step away from the headlines to look at the deep realities of China.

Consider the geography. China’s land area is slightly larger than that of the United States; its population is more than three times that of the United States. There are 56 recognized ethnicities or “nationalities” in the population, but even the majority Han people are divided by five major “dialects”—actually different languages. Cantonese, spoken in the south, is not really comprehensible to northern Chinese who speak Mandarin. The Wu “dialect,” spoken around Shanghai; Min-Nan, spoken in Fujian province and Taiwan; and Hakka, yet another linguistic subgroup, are all quite distinct. Needless to say, local cultures are distinct as well. In other words, the concept of one uniform China is a facade: underneath, there are vibrant local cultures and conditions.

Still, there are elements that tie the country together. The complex system of Chinese characters helps unify linguistic diversity. But there is another element, which goes deeper: the scale of Chinese history, which reaches into the deep, even prehistoric past. The Chinese historical myth begins with the founding of the Shang and Zhou dynasties over 5,000 years ago. Indeed, history—the officially promoted version of it—is kept alive for most Chinese. The current regime makes sure everybody remembers that China’s past glories were degraded and destroyed by foreign invaders during the “century of humiliation” that started with the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.

The degree of domestic change in China also contributes to the paradox. Millions have risen from poverty. The Maoist extremes of the 1950s and 1960s, which turned the country inside out in a paroxysm of violence, have been repudiated. Today members of the leadership dress in sober business suits. Wealthy business people enroll in the Communist Party. And here is the payoff: the party will allow great concentrations of wealth among elites (which include the families of party leaders)—and some trickle-down prosperity for the masses—as long as the party’s monopoly on power is not challenged. China does indeed look as if it is heading toward being a generally well-off society—but with a new twist to the old economic “Golden Rule.” It is no longer “who has the gold makes the rules”; it is “who makes the rules gets the gold.”

Still, our perceptions of China—and China’s perceptions of itself—have changed dramatically. China is no longer Red China, the center of the world proletarian, anti-imperialist revolution. Now it is a modern state on track to world power. It is the “world’s factory,” fueled by foreign and domestic investment. But we cannot quite call its state-dominated economy capitalist, even though there are stock exchanges and a lively private sector.

The Dream Achieved?

But can we say that China’s successes mean Xi’s “China dream” has been achieved? The whole story is, in fact, a process, and Xi and the party face several additional dilemmas that have their roots in both the deep past and the immediate present. Think of them, Chinese style, as China’s “Four Basic Questions.” How the current group of leaders answers them will not be the end of the story, but may give us an indication of where China today is headed:

How to rule a large country with a large population from a single place.

How to make China great again.

How to transform China.

How to deal with the outside world.

The First Emperor, Qín Shi Huang, who unified China over 2,000 years ago, addressed the first question. His solution: China would be ruled from the top; select officials, personally responsible to him and guided by a Legalist ideology of hard, inflexible laws and severe punishments, would control the localities; an army would be deployed throughout the country to maintain order and ruthlessly wage war against external enemies; and secret police spies would make sure that order and loyalty to the emperor, the Son of Heaven, would be maintained. Confucian thought, with its ideas of morality and benevolent relationships, was proscribed. Control was the objective; power was both arbitrary and absolute. No velvet glove here—only the iron fist.

Today the controlling Communist Party similarly strikes hard at any possible challenge to its power, be it from farmers protesting the illegal seizure of homes and land or intellectuals who dare to express themselves about democracy and civil liberties. To be sure, contemporary China is not the ideologically frantic and poor China of the 1950s and 1960s, when daily parroting of slogans was required and fear of accusations of disloyalty that could lead to labor camps was the order of the day. Private life is much freer, though challenging the party’s monopoly of authority can lead to extra-judicial imprisonment in “reform through labor” camps or worse. The Internet has brought a certain freedom of discussion to China, though 30,000-plus censors keep an eye out for prohibited discussions. We have to wonder if the regime is afraid of its subjects.

Yet even here the ideology of power produces paradoxes. China pretends that it is a unitary state, ruled from the top. But given the extremely different conditions in China’s 34 provincial-level administrative regions, which include not only provinces, but autonomous regions and major cities like Shanghai, local power holders really run the show. Economically, each region strives to promote itself, leading not to a unified national economy but to a system of economic federalism. Local officials are promoted on the basis of their region’s economic growth. Hence it is not surprising to find not only regional competition but also disregard of directives from Beijing if those orders go against local interests. Feigning compliance to central directives by local officials is a Chinese art form.

Restoring the Middle Kingdom

The party still feels that its rule is essential for achieving “greatness.” That China is indeed one of the great centers of world culture goes without saying. But what is “greatness” in this context? Restoration of sovereignty, for sure, international recognition as a major power and, most important, international respect. To be sure, China’s road to “greatness” continues to take many turns, but it is a goal that is widely shared. Certainly China’s economic and social development is remarkable.

But are those achievements due to a party that boasts that “without the Communist Party there would be no China,” but which took the country down detours like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 (an event quite literally erased from the official history books)? Or to a proud, resilient and talented people?

Confronted by the challenges of imperialism and internal decay and the dream of restored glory, Chinese leaders have realized that Chinese society will need to be transformed. The question is, how? Which road?

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, Marxist and Maoist approaches have been abandoned. In the 1970s the party started with reforms in agriculture, with peasants being allowed to grow for the market, not the state. Later, foreign investment began to be welcomed. But it was slow going. The veteran Communist leader Deng Xiaoping struggled with more conservative leaders in Beijing to open up to reform more quickly. It was only in 1992 that the real boom in China’s economy took off. Deng probably never actually said, “To get rich is glorious,” but that certainly became the mantra in China. The economic results 20 years on are obvious.

The current regime of President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, installed just this year, is faced with the need to rebalance the economy away from a dependence on investment, export production and fiscal stimulus to domestic consumption. One new solution: urbanization. The party plans massive resettlements of China’s peasantry in expanded and newly created urban areas. Whether the disruption of rural life will have the desired effect of increasing demand or lead to the kind of trauma associated with the Great Leap Forward (1958–61), not to mention the creation of low-income urban ghettos, is an open question.

Looking Out—Warily

Finally, there is the question of how to deal with the outside world. China basically looks inward—the world beyond the Great Wall is seen as hostile. Some observers suggest that the essence of Chinese history is the conflict between the settled, agricultural Han peoples and the aggressive, nomadic tribes of the surrounding northern and western steppes. China today shares land borders with 14 countries and shares contiguous seas with Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are not far away. It is a difficult environment to deal with.

In addition, China has to contend with foreign ideas that may threaten the party’s quest for political monopoly. Some concepts—separation of powers, the rule of law, freedom of the press, civil rights, “universal values”—are regularly denounced in the party press as assaults aimed at destroying Chinese socialism.

Foreign religions too—Buddhism, Islam, Christianity—have often been targets of repression throughout China’s long history. The very idea that foreigners might exercise some kind of authority over Chinese people is anathema. Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, fall under official “patriotic associations” which exercise control over their activities. Needless to say, the Vatican does not accept Beijing’s authority.

Not surprisingly, China’s response to the outside world has ranged from autarkic isolation to full, if wary engagement. Today China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a member of important multilateral organizations, like the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. China has gained much by participating in these pillars of the world order as a “responsible stakeholder.” Still, when international action against repressive client states like North Korea or Zimbabwe, or murderous regimes like that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, is called for, China, perhaps seeing the potential for mischief or blowback, demurs. Similarly, when China runs afoul of the World Trade Organization’s regulations, there is often noncompliance.

China has not been bashful about flexing its muscles over territorial disputes. China is a potent Asian military power, and everybody knows it. It has warred with India and Vietnam over territorial claims and is currently involved in a game of gun-boat chicken with Japan over the Senkaku-Diaoyutai islets in the East China Sea. Similarly, China has made the questionable claim that most of the South China Sea is its territory—a self-described “core interest”—and refuses the request of affected Southeast Asian nations to submit to arbitration or international adjudication, as required by treaties and agreements. Rather, China says it will deal with each dispute one by one, a strategy of divide and conquer.

From a strategic standpoint, it looks as if China is trying to secure its offshore borders. And perhaps re-establish a modern version of the tribute system of the past, in which lesser Asian states acknowledged Chinese superiority. But internationally these assertive moves may be counterproductive. Asian nations are forming closer relations with each other. Japan is reconsidering its security interests; there is growing sentiment in Japan to revisit and revise Japan’s so-called peace constitution to allow a larger and more active military. And these moves are also reinforcing the views of Asian leaders that the U.S. “pivot to Asia” is a good thing. Except for China, no one wants to see the U.S. Seventh Fleet go away.

China plays up the nationalism card in these disputes. But that is a dangerous game. Might not the legitimacy of the party be seriously, if not fatally, compromised if, somehow, its hard-line claims of sovereignty were successfully challenged? Nowhere does that danger lurk more than in the complex case of Taiwan.

Taiwan was only loosely part of the Qing Empire. It was ceded by the Qing to Japan following China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. The island became the rice bowl of the Japanese empire. But following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China, reclaimed the island for China. As the Chinese civil war between Chiang’s Nationalist forces and Mao’s Communist armies ground down to the defeat of the Nationalists, Chiang and his government fled to the island in the late 1940s.

What followed was not pretty: strict martial law, suppression of independence movements, a garrison state. The society split between the majority “Taiwanese,” descendents of Han Chinese who had migrated to the island during imperial times, and the “mainlanders,” a minority of refugees—often regarded as carpetbaggers—whose roots were in China.

Today Taiwan is a fully functioning, multi-party democracy of 23 million people. Its G.D.P. of $913 billion ranks 21st in the world; per capita income of $39,400 is roughly that of Belgium and Germany. Not surprisingly, given geography, China is its main trading partner. Not everybody in Taiwan is happy with the ever-tightening, if perhaps inevitable, economic links with China. There are fears that the Taiwanese economy is being “hollowed out” as investment across the Straits grows. And there is also a serious question of identity. Most people on Taiwan see themselves as “Taiwanese”—culturally Chinese but certainly not subjects of Beijing.

So there is an international anomaly. Taiwan has all the attributes of a nation state—borders, currency, armed forces, economy—but exists in diplomatic limbo because Beijing claims the island as a “lost territory” (like Hong Kong and Macao). Any formal recognition of Taiwan as an entity separate from China is, for Beijing, not acceptable. Thus any talk or move toward Taiwanese independence is truly one of Beijing’s red lines. The implications of Taiwanese independence for Tibet and restive Xinjiang Province, once known as East Turkestan, are obvious.

Would China attack Taiwan if at some point a declaration of independence were to be made? Most international observers do not entirely discount the possibility, but the impact on the international order would be serious.

China’s Own Path

What can we conclude about the “China dream”? We should not gainsay the genuineness of Chinese nationalist passions. Most Chinese—and indeed, most people outside of China—want China to grow and prosper. But Xi’s slogan looks like another one of those mantras that Chinese political leaders feel compelled to come up with to identify and justify their particular place in the stream of history.

Still, whether one is sympathetic to China’s aspirations or hostile toward them, it must be recognized that the country sets its own path. The regime has to grapple with a long list of difficult issues: the sustainability of growth as the economy restructures, problematic foreign relations, an aging population, corruption and the erosion of China’s scarce arable land under the combined pressure of rampant urbanization and severe environmental degradation. To be sure, the regime appears robust—the country’s vast foreign reserves must be a comfort.

In the end, as we watch China, we should understand that the drama of China still revolves around the evolving answers to the Four Basic Questions. And we should recognize that the “China dream” may have many forms. Xi would like there to be one. But maybe there are 1.3 billion.

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ed gleason
4 years 2 months ago
" Though well over 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty, some 13 percent of the Chinese population—175 million, is estimated to still languish below the poverty line." In the USA our poverty rate is 16% and there is no lifting out as in China..... instead we stuff more into poverty... I say that's the Tea Party answer to the China boom. .
Nicholas Clifford
4 years 2 months ago
A quick historical note: The First Emperor did indeed proscribe Confucianism and its ideas of benevolence, etc., but after the collapse of his Qin empire a few years later, Confucianism came back as orthodoxy, albeit in a form that could well be used to support the ideas of centralized, unitary government. This was particularly true with the development of Neo-Confucianism a thousand years later, especially in the writings of Zhu Xi (1130-1200) -- who is sometimes called the Confucian analogue to Thomas Aquinas. But perhaps the real destruction of Confucianism in all its forms came with Mao Zedong and the Communists, when the Sage was portrayed as a "feudal reactionary." Since then, however, Communism has fallen, meaning that China has lacked both the Confucian ethic and the socialist ethic. There have been attempts for the last several decades to bring Confucius back to fill the ethical vacuum, but their success has been rather limited in a highly materialistic post-Communist society. The question of how to fill that vacuum is still open, though both Buddhism and Christianity (particularly Protestant Christianity) has made some headway.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 2 months ago
"murderous regimes like that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria" .... "problematic foreign relations" .... "challenges of imperialism" You did not mention Israel as a current and wickedly barbed "challenge of imperialism", nor even make clear that the imperialism in question is not Chinese. Let us take that concept of racism, embodied in the Jewish state in Palestine, as the defining challenge to the problem of definition, be it in one question or four, one dream or 1.3 billion dreams. I heard that Chinese anti-poverty programs are all locally based, as you say most things in China are. Someone's metaphor, maybe mine, was of two hundred rafts floating down a dangerous river, all lashed together (all serving the national policy objective--per your "federalism"), but with their very diversity of design, construction, and management allowing the flexibility in action that lets the whole assemblage navigate the rapids successfully. What is the basis, what are the presuppositions, for a successful federal system? Canada at least tried to delineate the division of labor in its law, something in a brief paragraph (maybe navigation, citizenship, and security for the federal government, education, health, and culture for the provincial governments). I don't think anybody has seriously tried that exercise in US law recently. The test for China might be in racism: do Chinese invidiously discriminate against non-Chinese in the same way Israel oppresses, in theory as well as in practice, non-Jews? What does it take for a modern society, a "mass-technological" culture, to banish racism? So we might attend church to seek an answer, if this is the question for us posed by China. If "human" is one pole of an existential dialectic where the other is "truth" in some absolute sense, and we live our lives in the tension within this dialectic, this seems a matter of faith. There is no proving that truth is better than lying, even defining truth at all, except in the presence of some absolute indefinable X factor. My little jargon coined today is "the first rule is up to you," which is to say, the rule by which you decide which rules (to) apply to which cases is beyond saying, so everybody must make that ante on their own to play the game of life-in-society. If that is the teaching of faith, of lore, of wisdom, of community, then the more-local Chinese question of its official doctrinal ties to Communist "orthodoxy" might be likened to the US Constitutional question of racism embodied in Israel and US support for Israel. The question in both cases is whether the solutions to these anomalies will be sought in even more doctrinaire preaching-to-the-choir-which-has-long-since-departed. As the present Pope might say (I've just started the interview published here recently), it comes down to personal decisions. As the Pope said in choosing a more humble abode than the official Papal apartment, something in him shouted out "no!" when they showed him where he was to live. Is China more than the "paradox" of capitalistic Communism? Is the US more than a mighty refuge of racism? We won't overcome these doctrinal hurdles by arranging more hurdles in front of them, but rather by bringing this all down to earth, to people we meet, to the quiet times, and, equally, to the moments of truth when it does indeed seem like all life might be swept away in a flood of hatred: so that someone must be the first to stand up and shout, like the Pope's conscience, "no!" No, that is, let me seek a more humble, more human-scale approach. Something where I can see the individual faces in these crowds, as the Pope also said: something to keep me honest. Perhaps by showing me you, someone to keep me honest, someone for me to keep honest, and, between the two of us, to keep that guy over there honest.

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