President Xi Jinping is China’s most authoritarian leader since Deng Xiaoping, a strongman who has moved aggressively to assert and consolidate power while promoting a cult of personality.

Rivals have been dispatched, he has rooted out those in the ruling oligarchy that were planted there precisely to prevent him from becoming too strong, and he has mounted an anti-corruption campaign that makes the rich and powerful fear crossing him because they are all implicated in China’s kleptocracy.

But what does the new strongman want to do with all this power? Recent signs are not encouraging. On the western frontiers he has been stomping down on Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans, stifling pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rattling sabers along the border with India and militarizing disputes with neighbors in the East China and South China seas. Meanwhile, in the heartland he has unleashed a Draconian crackdown on journalists, critics and activists.

Just because Xi has shown tyrannical inclinations, it doesn’t mean he isn’t also a reformer. Indeed, the show of force may well be a gambit to promote that agenda, but he has an awful lot to prove.

The recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are symptomatic of Xi’s problems as he navigates the riptide of rising aspirations, growing disparities and lower mobility. Too many “have-nots” want a taste of the good life, but have been left on the outside staring in envy and anger at the riches accumulated over the past two decades by those with close ties to the Communist Party. Prosperity has opened eyes, whetted appetites and stoked a yearning for civil rights, transparency, the rule of law and accountability that clashes with the party’s zealously guarded monopoly of power. The party brandishes the prospects of a chaotic unraveling and need for stability, but my guess is that few Chinese worry that political liberalization heralds a descent into a Yugoslavian nightmare.

Back in October 2012, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that China needs a new “dream” to inspire its citizens and offset the social malaise of “affluenza” in a nation that has delivered prosperity, but failed on so much else. However, China has lots of dreamers, and even if everyone is in the same bed it doesn’t mean they share the same dreams.

In party-speak, Xi told Xinhua News in 2013 that it is essential to “cherish the glorious youth, strive with pioneer spirit and contribute their wisdom and energy to the realization of the Chinese dream.” I am sure that is precisely the lesson Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters drew from the recent pepper-spray attacks security forces inflicted while “celebrating” China’s birthday.

The sudden spike in interest in clarifying the Chinese dream is a window on a nation in search of an identity and rethinking the idea of China. At a minimum, the dream means to have a better life and to ensure the next generation has an even better life. It means upward mobility in a society where aspirations and ambitions can be realized. It is about prosperity, sustainability and modernization, but there is equally much to be said for protection from zealotry and upheaval. The Chinese dream is also an emblem of nationalism, aimed at regaining China’s proper place in the world, commanding respect and calling the shots.

The dream omits the fact that China features even greater inequality than the United States and represses the truth about this inequality. Chinese who call for greater transparency about such disparities and lobby for asset disclosure by public officials end up in jail because they threaten to expose the sham of Chinese socialism while subverting the party. Posting such information on a website invites swift deletion by vigilant authorities. This less appealing side of the rising-China narrative is an inconvenient truth that speaks volumes about the Chinese system and the dreams it quashes.

The rub, as Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker (March 26, 2013), is whether this is a collective monolithic dream or a society where individuals define and pursue their own dreams. Is the dream oriented toward individual satisfaction or collective benefits? The idea of China has been defined collectively, an egalitarian model that is increasingly at odds with reality and the aspirations of upwardly mobile urbanites seeking the good life based on their individual achievements and fulfilling their individual ambitions. The wrong dreams, it’s worth noting, are also subject to prosecution in China as activists try to realize theirs.

The Communist Party has been adept at manufacturing consent through carrots and sticks, rewarding those who buy into the system and squeezing those who criticize all that needs criticizing. Problematically, Xi took over an economy losing momentum amid growing political turmoil. Since the party’s claims to legitimacy rest on delivering rapid growth that propels more citizens into the promised land of middle-class materialism while presiding over political stability, Xi has had to resort to amped-up nationalist despotism.

Political turmoil is generated by numerous factors, but clearly abuse of power is at the root of many problems in contemporary China. A Chinese journalist interviewed me recently, asking if I felt threatened because I criticize Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Among other comments I replied that I would much rather be a government critic in Japan than in China, pointing out that journalists in Hong Kong have been badly beaten by criminal thugs — allegedly at the behest of Beijing — and many of her mainland colleagues languish in jail, just for doing their job. Those remarks somehow didn’t make it into print.

Xi’s boldest move thus far was taking down Zhou Yongkang, the former domestic security chief and member of the Standing Committee who counted oil giant Sinopec in his empire. Apparently the Zhou family’s DNA was exceptionally propitious, as more than a few have the billionaire genome.

Xi’s crackdown does not resemble that by Russian President Vladimir Putin that strips rival oligarchs of their fiefdoms to feather the nest of favored cronies. One longtime China-watcher who studied there during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) told me that Xi has an obsessive desire to implement wide-ranging reforms that are stymied by the presence of state-owned enterprises. In her view, Xi is above all an authoritarian, but one with reformist instincts who sees the need to “clear the board of ossified institutions” and institutionalized corruption that impede sweeping economic reforms crucial to sustaining growth and modernization. We’re all waiting to see how that dream turns out.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.

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