ASPIRATION OR DELUSION?

China faces many hurdles en route to realising its vision of becoming the world’s greatest economic and political power by 2050. Sun Xi reports

When historians look back on China in the 21st century, 2018 is likely to stand out as a particularly significant year. In March, members of the National People’s Congress unanimously re-appointed President Xi Jinping for another five years in office and agreed that Wang Qishan will return as Vice-President, ending an official ‘retirement’ that has lasted just five months.

The People’s Congress also lifted restrictions on the length of terms for the President and Vice-President. This opens the way for President Xi to continue in office for the rest of his life, with his trusted ally Mr Wang by his side.

The media in China have been largely uncritical of this move and are presenting 2018 as the year that President Xi’s new era officially begins. For the party faithful, it marks a step towards the realisation of the Chinese Dream, which the country’s leaders describe as the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. Last year, President Xi outlined a three-step roadmap for achieving this vision.

To begin with, China will aim to become a moderately well-off society by 2021 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party – and a modern Socialist economy by 2035.  By 2049 – the centenary of the foundation of the People’s Republic – the aim is that it will have become a strong and prosperous country.

In this vision, the Chinese Dream will restore China to its former glory as the greatest ever economic and political power in world history. It harks back to previous golden ages, the Han and Tang Dynasties, often viewed as pinnacles of Chinese civilisation. Though it is exciting to see the possible re-emergence of another civilised, prosperous and halcyon era in China, I believe challenges and uncertainties lie ahead.

The Chinese Dream harks back to previous golden ages, the Han and Tang Dynasties

Firstly, let us address the question of what the Chinese Dream means to the citizens of China. President Xi has described the project as a dream which relies on the people to bring benefit to the people, but what do such words mean in the Chinese context?

It might be helpful to compare Xi’s notion with the American Dream. Some political analysts see the American and Chinese Dreams as sharing common goals: building prosperous nations and achieving personal success. But in fact the American Dream is largely an individual one, while its Chinese equivalent is more of a collective vision. The social and political approaches are distinctly different.

The American Dream can be considered to follow a bottom-up approach, whereby the success of each American citizen will naturally contribute to the overall prosperity of the United States. In contrast, the Chinese Dream may be viewed as having a top-down approach, through which leaders pull China up towards prosperity.

Although the top-down approach of the Chinese Dream seemed effective during the country’s initial wealth creation phase, it has ultimately led to inequality. A third of China’s wealth is owned by 1 per cent of households, and 25 per cent of the poorest households own just 1 per cent of its wealth, according to a study from Peking University. Thus China faces the dilemma of becoming a richer nation with many less well-off people.

Another issue to consider is what the Chinese Dream means to the Chinese diaspora. There are over 60 million Chinese living around the world, including foreigners with Chinese ethnicity. President Xi has called for all Chinese people, whether at home or abroad, to unite in achieving the dream. Overseas Chinese, especially foreigners with Chinese ethnicity, sometimes face a dilemma when being forced to choose between loyalty to China and to their host countries. For example, in 2015 in Malaysia, the Chinese ambassador’s statement that China was the ‘protector’ of Chinese people living in that country sparked accusations of interference in domestic politics and made many Malaysian Chinese people feel ill at ease.

China expects overseas Chinese to be supportive or even loyal to China, but many of them have complex feelings about China and its political leadership. The Singaporean columnist Wee Kek Koon put it this way in the South China Morning Post: ‘China is to most of us what Britain is to most Americans or Australians with British antecedents: the country of our ancestors, but not ours.’

It is my conviction that, while overseas Chinese might choose to contribute to the Chinese Dream, they should not be forced to do so.

HE HAS A DREAM: Chinese President Xi Jinping
HE HAS A DREAM: Chinese President Xi Jinping

Lastly, let us turn to the question of what the Chinese Dream means to the rest of the world. President Xi has said that ‘the dream of us Chinese is closely connected with the dreams of people of other countries’, and state media shows a picture of perfection in which China is depicted as peaceful and friendly with the whole world, spreading a message of the ‘common community of human destiny’. This, of course, fits well with the Belt and Road initiative to develop global infrastructure and trade. However, many people outside of China are sceptical because they think that winning hearts and minds at home and abroad through the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front is just a typical trick for marketing the Chinese Dream.

State media shows a picture of perfection in which China is friendly with the whole world

If the Chinese Dream is realised, China will be a global economic superpower. But what of the diplomatic and security implications? Will the US willingly give up its enormous global influence? Will Japan, still Asia’s second largest economy, be eclipsed? Will other small countries be forced to surrender to China and follow its Socialist development path? Those are real concerns, and China must address them convincingly.

In my opinion, the recent removal of the term limit on the president will not turn Xi Jinping into an emperor but it does mark a significant consolidation of his power. It is still too early to say whether the Chinese Dream will be realised by 2050. However, for the dream to be truly meaningful and beneficial to all people in China, overseas Chinese and the whole world, it will need to be more people-oriented, inclusive, voluntary, friendly and open. Otherwise, it may end up as less of a dream and more of a mirage.


Sun Xi, a 1980s China-born alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an independent commentary writer based in Singapore. He is also founder and CEO of ESGuru, a Singapore-based consultancy firm specialising in environmental, social and governance issues.

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