CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – Katy Perry may have been banned from China’s music websites, but her “Teenage Dream” now has its Asian counterpart. Newly confirmed in office, President Xi Jinping, has chosen “Chinese Dream” as his signature phrase to describe the direction of his administration.
Although it is early, and the phrase could be altered or abandoned, Xi invoked it both on becoming leader of the Communist Party of China and in his final rhetorical salvo as he assumed the presidency. Certainly, as I saw in my recent travels there, no other phrase has been given comparable attention in the state media, a relatively reliable sign that the dream is here to stay.
So what, exactly, is the Chinese dream of which Xi speaks? In a country where policies are expressed obliquely and elaborated cautiously by party elites, this is the $64,000 question. Its answer should tell us much about the future of China — and thus about the future of global geopolitics.
The easy part of interpreting the dream is the individual component. As Xi (who was previously vice president) and other party leaders have repeatedly explained in the past few years, an individual Chinese citizen who works hard should be able to succeed. This resonates closely with the American dream of a car in every garage. (After the recent Huangpu River porcine infestation, wags commented that the Communist Party was a great success: The fields were full of wheat and the river was full of pigs.)
The aspect of the Chinese dream that targets individual self-fulfillment should be viewed in the West with aplomb rather than fear. It may be difficult for China to keep up a pace of even 7.5 percent growth, but to the extent it does so, it doesn’t make the West any poorer, and it alleviates local poverty.
Allowing every hardworking Chinese to succeed also implies a reduction in corruption. This will be hard to accomplish, but is highly desirable for the party, which correctly sees graft as the major threat to its legitimacy. Again, there is every reason for outsiders to hope that China can curb corruption that would threaten stability and take food out of the mouths of ordinary Chinese.
But the Chinese dream isn’t merely individual — and that is where things get much more complicated for the West in general and the United States in particular. The adjective “Chinese” doesn’t reflect solely on the citizen, but on the nation as a whole. In his closing address to the National People’s Congress last month, Xi said that the dream included the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and its restoration to its historical place in the world.
There can be little doubt that this language points toward Chinese nationalism. In a post-Marxist world, the party needs drivers for its legitimacy. Economic growth is one, but as growth slows, Chinese nationalism is increasingly appealing. All mainland Chinese are raised on the narrative of a century of collective humiliation that only began to end with the Communist takeover in 1949. In a sense, the party’s raison d’etre is to end that humiliation by reversing the course of history and putting China where it would have been, absent internal breakdown and Western imperial domination in the last years of the Qing dynasty.
So what would a rejuvenated Chinese nation look like to the rest of the world? It need not take on the U.S. in the West; China even at its peak wasn’t a superpower that went in search of faraway wars or noncontiguous colonies. Yet within Asia, China’s historic place (at least as perceived by Chinese) required supremacy within a sphere of influence extending across the strait to Taiwan, to the Korean Peninsula and beyond. Japan was a thorn in the emperors’ sides, by turns recalcitrant to Chinese influence and actively hostile as an occasional invader. Its long-term ideal status, though, was always as a cowed subordinate, capable of keeping its independence but not much else.
A China restored to its historic place, then, would be an Asian hegemon. In that character, it would join the U.S. as one of two global superpowers, each with its own sphere of influence. No doubt Xi would like to see this process occur gradually and without confrontation. But almost by definition, it entails U.S. retrenchment from its current position as an Asian hegemon protecting Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. With such a change, the U.S. might remain a “Pacific power,” as President Barack Obama has described it — but it wouldn’t be the Pacific power par excellence. That mantle would pass to a rejuvenated China.
Perhaps the U.S. will accept this process as inevitable. Stranger things have happened, and a country weakened by its failures in Afghanistan and Iraq may want to turn inward and welcome the entrance of China onto the regional security stage in the guise of “responsible stakeholder” — an important phrase coined not by China but by Robert Zoellick when he was deputy secretary of state for U.S. President George W. Bush.
Don’t count on it, though. Sole global superpowers don’t usually cede power without a fight. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are vibrant, rich democracies whose continued vitality depends on U.S. protection. In the case of Taiwan, an independence-minded politician elected by young voters could precipitate a crisis, and the U.S. would have to decide whether to send aircraft carriers into the strait. Japan is increasingly toying with the possibility of amending its U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution, and there are signs the U.S. favors a more militarized Japan that could aid in its own defense. As for South Korea, it needs continued U.S.-backing to face down the erratic, nuclear North Korean regime that remains largely a Chinese proxy state.
All these potential conflicts mean that Xi’s Chinese dream demands scrutiny in the U.S. as well as in Asia. Dreams are by their nature protean and flexible. Here’s hoping the Chinese dream can be shaped away from nationalism and toward the more innocent pleasures of being young, rich and in possession of a nice car and a hot boyfriend.
Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, is a Bloomberg View columnist and author of the forthcoming book “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.” The opinions expressed are his own.