WASHINGTON - As he accepted the Communist Party’s designation to be China’s president and supreme military leader in March, Xi Jinping vowed “to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Xi’s speech to the National People’s Congress won plaudits from the press. “His crisp yet rich voice and frank yet resolute gaze revealed a power to invigorate the people,” the China People’s Daily reported.
But the speech left analysts guessing about what sort of rejuvenation — also translated as “revival” or “renaissance” — the new leader has in mind. Presumably U.S. President Barack Obama will be looking for clues when he meets with Xi later this week in California.
Does Xi mean a “Chinese dream” of prosperity, as the “American dream” is often interpreted — a promise to continue the historic progress of the past three decades in moving people from poverty into the middle class? Does he have in mind a campaign against the widespread corruption and growing inequality of wealth that rankles many Chinese? Or is he focused on raising China’s influence and profile beyond its borders? He has hinted at all three possibilities.
Many prominent scholars, the Economist magazine recently reported, signed a petition urging China to rejuvenate based on the rule of law — placing the constitution higher than arbitrary one-party rule.
A turn in that direction could help with all three “revival” goals. Dictators from Stalin to South Korea’s Park Chung-hee have managed to wrench their nations from abject poverty to mid-level industrialization, but further growth — escape from the “middle-income trap” that worries many Chinese officials — almost always is accompanied by political liberalization.
An independent judiciary would tame corruption more effectively than periodic purges and Communist Party disciplinary campaigns. And China would win more friends abroad, and drive fewer neighbors into the shelter of U.S. alliance, by respecting international norms than through bullying.
Alas, there is little evidence so far that Xi is tempted in the direction of constitutionalism. While he has, like past leaders, mentioned democracy as an eventual goal, he also has said, “The Chinese dream is an ideal. Communists should have a higher ideal, and that is communism.” When the People’s Daily posted an online survey about the “Chinese dream,” about 80 percent of respondents said they did not support one-party rule — and the survey was quickly taken down.
Xi is still settling in, though; he himself may not be entirely sure what direction he will take. While his choices will be determined primarily by internal factors, global perceptions and responses will matter, too. That makes it even more important than usual for Obama to explain why mutually beneficial U.S.-China relations would be served by Chinese respect for the rule of law.
Obama should make clear, for example, that when Chinese officials promise their U.S. counterparts that human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng can emigrate with no adverse consequences to his relatives, and then those relatives are arrested, beaten and harassed, U.S. trust is affected.
When a longtime resident of North America, democracy advocate Wang Bingzhang, is lured to a meeting on the Vietnam-China border, kidnapped by Chinese security agents and thrown into solitary confinement in a remote prison — that affects perceptions, too. (Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in Wang’s case, having become friends with his daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, and written a novel for young adults inspired in part by his story.)
And when a literary critic such as Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobois imprisoned for peaceful advocacy of free speech — and his wife is put under house arrest with no due process — outsiders have to doubt the confidence that Chinese officials claim to feel in their model of governance and development.
Here’s something else Obama might say: No country is likely to win respect for greatness if it lives in fear of citizens like Chen, Wang and Liu. Nor is “rejuvenation” likely to be more than a slogan unless it is built on the principle that all three men spoke for — the principle of rule of law.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.