To Americans, the name Xi Jinping holds much of the same weight as a name like Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, or Pol Pot. He is a bogeyman of sorts, an autocratic despot that rules China with an iron fist, a personification of the United States’ greatest rival. He is oft pictured on the front of magazines or in political cartoons, standing before a red background adorned with the hammer and sickle or the stars of the CCP. His picture can also be found online beside images of Winnie the Pooh, after people noted that he bears a striking resemblance to the character.
However, there is far more to Xi Jinping than his resemblance to fictional bears, or the position he occupies as one of the great villains of the West. Since 2012, Xi has had a major role in Party leadership, becoming the General secretary of the Central Military Commission in 2012, and being elected president in March of 2013. A central aspect of his platform was Zhongguomeng, “The Chinese Dream,” which in his mind was the rejuvenation of China: “Everyone has his own ideals, aspirations and dreams. Nowadays, the Chinese Dream is a hot topic; in my opinion, realising the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese dream.
1” This rejuvenation would be made possible through the elimination of corruption in the government and the economy, coupled with tighter, more centralized control of both, which would allow China to progress.
When Xi came to power, he inherited a host of issues from the previous leadership of China under Hu Jintao. Chief among these was China’s surplus of production, which was at an output that far outstripped the Chinese economy, as well as reliance on foreign trade.
2 Part of Xi’s aim to grow the Chinese economy was to curb excess production, closing steel factories and coal mines (of which China produces more than half the world’s supply)
3. Early on in Xi’s presidency, the concept of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative was first introduced, further allowing China to take control of its own economic destiny and handle its overproduction problems as a result of the massive construction projects needed to realize it.
4 The “One Belt, One Road” initiative also gave China a greater interconnectedness with the world, linking it with the rest of Asia and Africa. However, due to the fact that China considers human rights to be a domestic issue, it has no qualms trading with nations that commit human rights violations. In this way, the Chinese dream comes at the expense of other, weaker nations.
The idea of a national “Chinese dream” is one that runs parallel to American ideas. We talk about the “American dream,” which is loosely understood as equal opportunity for all . In China, the idea of a “Chinese Dream” predated Xi Jinping, but he was the first to mobilize it and use it as a campaign on which to stand. In 2013, after Xi was elected president, a party editorial contextualized the Chinese dream as having stretched back through 5000 years of history, the May Fourth Movement, the 1911 Revolution, and even the Imperial period. However, it was only through the leadership of the party that this national dream could truly be realized.
5. A collective “dream” is not an uncommon animus for a nation. However, Xi Jinping’s methods for realizing it, along with the majority of the Western world fearing and hating China, has led to the “Chinese Dream,” becoming synonymous with a global Chinese hegemony, and China eclipsing America as a global superpower.
Fear of China rising to global ascendancy is commonplace. The New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, when addressing China’s need for a national dream, remarked that, “Because the next government’s dream for China’s emerging middle class… is just like the American Dream… then we need another planet.”
6, referring to the lack of sustainable business practices that China employs to boost its economy and grow its middle class. Others are far more urgent, treating the idea of a “Chinese dream” as a direct threat to the West. Two years after Xi came to power, writer for the Council on Foreign Relations Elizabeth Economy had this to say about President Xi’s aims, “The United States and the rest of the world cannot afford to wait and see how his reforms play out. The United States should be ready to embrace some of Xi’s initiatives as opportunities for international collaboration while treating others as worrisome trends that must be stopped before they are solidified”
This comes across as a dire warning, an urge for the United States to step up and defend its status as a global superpower, both economically and militarily. This perhaps comes to the heart of the issue: The United States is happy to promote ideas of economic independence, freedom, and autonomy at home and abroad where it is convenient, but pushes to do the same from powerful countries that could challenge its global authority are met with suspicion and hostility.
This is not to say that Xi’s implementation of his policies is harmless. His crackdowns on corruption have been brutal, and his role as both president and head of the military reeks of dictatorial power. He has also assumed the role of premier for himself, meaning that he is in charge of the party, the economy, and the military, which swore allegiance directly to him
8. The internet has undergone heavy censorship in an effort to curb the spreading of opposition, and in the Xinjiang region and Tibet, ruthless crackdowns have been initiated that stifle the ethnic populations. China has long been at odds with the Buddhist leadership of Tibet, as well as the Uyghur Muslim population of Xinjiang. Recently, however, Xinjiang has been almost totally locked down and policed, with residents being forced into reeducation camps and subject to violent repression.
We in the West tend to have kneejerk reactions when China does anything. The idea of a national dream is not an uncommon one, nor a new one for many nations, including the U.S. While President Xi’s methods are certainly brutal: crackdowns, militarization of the Xinjiang province, and economic policies that have led to severe denigration of the environment and widespread human rights abuses, it is important to remember that the U.S. and other Western nations are not always the champions of human rights and the environment that they claim to be. President Xi’s vision of a united and strong China is one that will naturally step on the toes of other nations jostling for a place at the table, and for those like the U.S. that want to keep their position of primacy in the world and in the economy. Xi Jinping may be a villain to the West, but his idea of a national dream is one that has been circulating the globe for centuries, and by all accounts did not originate in China.