Understanding Xi's 'Chinese Dream'

What it means and why it makes conflict with the United States inevitable

As the Western World emerges from lockdown to begin assessing the toll taken by the Wuhan Coronavirus itself, and especially the reactionary policies that devastated economies, the focus of those at the highest levels is sure to turn to redress. For the United States, the current world epicenter of the pandemic, that means attempting to peer through the smoke and mirrors to ascertain if the scale and scope of this contagion was an act of God, a comedy of errors, or worse.

There is, of course, all sorts of evidence that the People’s Republic of China, where the virus originated (in a wet market, or a lab), was negligent, perhaps even criminally so, in its handling of the outbreak.

U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have accused China of withholding and suppressing information about the virus purposely, exacerbating the spread of the pathogen in ways that could be construed as an act of war.

Chinese Communist Party leaders, meanwhile, have called Pompeo “evil,” spread manufactured propaganda about the U.S. role in the virus, and rebuked any who implicitly or explicitly dare to question China’s actions.

For all its wiping away of issues that heretofore seemed most pressing, the COVID-19 pandemic stands to throw that of United States versus China into full relief. Indeed, as I write, observers are already pointing out how much wider the diplomatic gulf has become in recent weeks between the world’s two largest economies.

The evident and building clash between the U.S. and China is geopolitical, economic, cultural, and philosophical. It’s a relationship that was always heading toward conflict, because it consists of two worldviews that are diametrically opposed to each other.

One must succumb to the other; they cannot coexist for long. As such, it is vitally important for policymakers and business leaders to understand the ‘Chinese Dream’ and what it entails.

Whereas the concept of the American Dream centers upon individuals seizing opportunity for success and productive achievement, enabling an elevated quality of life, the Chinese Dream is quite the contrary. It is not so much the dream of the Chinese, as it is a goal of China’s Xi Jinping, for world domination. He believes this is China’s rightful place in the world order.

You, of course, know Xi Jinping as the president of China, who maneuvered himself into a role as ‘Leader for Life’ in the communist regime, and for some reason has a problem with Winnie the Pooh. He is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission since 2012.

2012 was a big year for Xi, as it is also the year that he described the Chinese Dream of becoming a premier status nation by 2050 or sooner.

Since then China’s leaders have plowed headlong into militarizing their claims to the whole of the South China Sea, despite unfavorable rulings from international courts, protests from neighboring nations with competing claims, and the insistence of freedom of navigation by the likes of the United States. They have endorsed and enabled the systematic stealing of untold amounts of intellectual property, taken by outright theft, or as a steep price of entry to the Chinese market. This is all part of developing toward the dream.

China has positioned themselves diplomatically, at least in words and the press, as a force for stability, while they feign righteous indignation at any suggestion that any number of their actions are in fact destabilizing (to others). Stability for China is extremely important for Xi Jinping, because he knows the Chinese Dream is not realized without it.

We can see this reflected in their reactions to some world events, the movement in Catalonia to gain independence from Spain, for instance. China was resolute on the international stage in supporting Spain against the destabilizing separatists, no matter the merits of the Catalan cause, precisely because they’ve their own active and historical separatist movements to worry about in Honk Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

That is to say nothing of Taiwan, whose existence apart from the People’s Republic of China is not even acknowledged. For the sake of stability, the Chinese Communist Party, and all who fear their reprisal, willfully maintain a delusion of sovereignty over Taiwan. Any attempts to shatter this delusion with simple observations of reality are met with an artful twist by Chinese diplomats.

Stability works in at least two ways for China.  The leadership prefers talks that it can manipulate in its favor or that go China’s way without much effort on their part.  The Korean talks fit in that category. The other way is to demonstrate or apply coercion to create stability.  The Taiwan situation, the Uighurs and Hong Kong, and perhaps even the coronavirus crisis fit in to this category.

Even when brute force and China supremacy is implied, the Chinese Communist Party is adept at framing their presumably threatening actions as altruism. Militarized islets in the South China Sea are mere ‘navigational aids and rescue outposts.’ Their quest for world domination is presented as a friendly gift to the world, marked by 'lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity.'

Xi Jinping has given many such speeches. In 2018, closing out the National People’s Congress, Xi offered a peaceful veneer that proclaimed:

"China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion. Only those who are accustomed to threatening others see everyone as a threat. The Chinese people's sincere wish and practical action to contribute to the peace and development of humanity should not be misinterpreted, nor should they be distorted. Justice will prevail!"

The main body of the speech focused on the attributes and power of the Chinese people, with which Xi has conflated his identity.

Since assuming leadership in 2012, Xi has been increasingly more blunt and confident in asserting that China has a mission to enlighten the world with wisdom, to use Chinese solutions to solve world problems, and to use Chinese strength to establish universal security.

You can see how pursuing such a vision would carry China right into conflict with the United States, whose leaders would not interpret those ideas as non-threatening, exactly.

To live the dream of preeminent global status, though, China must first reach incremental goals, according to Xi’s plan.

  • 2012-2020 was the period of building a modern socialist country;

  • 2020-2035 is the period of achieving or realizing a modern socialist country

  • 2035 to 2050 is the period of modernizing a modern socialist country

The end result in 2050, in Xi’s Chinese Dream, is that China is the undisputed leader of the world. Xi laid out this vision in a three hour speech when first greeting the 19th Party Congress (emphasis added):

“The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a very important congress, convened at a decisive phase of the comprehensive completion of the building of a well-off society and a key period as socialism with Chinese characteristics enters a new era.”

“The theme of the congress is: never forget our original aspiration, keep our mission firmly in mind, hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, win a decisive victory in the comprehensive completion of the building of a well-off society, seize a great victory in the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and struggle unremittingly to realize the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Achievement of Xi’s intermediate goals, through 2035, requires a prolonged period of stability. Trade wars and pandemics tend to upset stability, yet the context is instructive regarding China’s reaction to such things as the Wuhan virus outbreak. Hiding the true extent of danger and uncertainty regarding a novel virus maybe detrimental to public health in other countries, but it is part and parcel of controlling narratives in order to maximize stability on the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese philosopher Laozi said, “A journey of 1,000 li (miles) begins with a single step.”  China has taken many steps, but the journey is perilous. Having a road map, and actually reaching the intended destination, are two different things.

As 2020 has shown us so far, there are many things that could disrupt the timely realization of Xi’s Chinese Dream. Chief among them is the fact that achieving hegemony means dislodging the current hegemon - The United States of America.

Having to negotiate and engage in geopolitical face-offs with a U.S. leader like President Donald Trump, notorious for his hard driving style, may be disruptive, too, but the imposition is a small slice of the long timeline. China will incur pain and deal with trade wars with an eye on maintaining stability, all the while laying the foundation for the next phase.

The moves of each nation over these next several years, a time in which China is focused on stability and development, will be decisive in whose dream lives on.

Xi Jinping is the most innovative and far-sighted communist leader since Deng Xiaoping. He has a long term vision, a ‘Ruler for Life’ status, and has moved steadily along pursuing his dream of Chinese hegemony.

President Donald Trump of the United States is also a transformative leader, whose strengths have often come in facing challenges head on, when no one else has the foresight or courage to face them. He may have a much shorter timeline and citizens to answer to, but his pressure on China since the early days of his first term is pointed and consistent. History may remember such a focus on China as prescient.

After 2035, according to Xi’s plan, China will be more assertive as the world leader with ‘world class armed forces.’ Stability will no longer be the priority, necessarily. How will that change the nature of Freedom of Navigation operations by the U.S. Navy that challenge Chinese claims of sovereignty? Or other conflicting claims to final authority in any number of geopolitical issues?

It is in this way that we realize the American Dream —loosely, self-determination, liberty, free markets, with the U.S. as the enforcer of the norm — cannot coexist with the Chinese Dream described by Xi Jinping.

One must succumb to the other.

As leaders in the United States and China spar over whose to blame for the pandemic panic, it is vital to appreciate that, despite the economic intermingling, these two nations are far from friends.

The Communist Party of China, and Xi Jinping especially, have a quest for a communist world hegemony with Chinese characteristics — that is the Chinese Dream, and it makes open conflict with the United States inevitable. Policymakers and business leaders should proceed accordingly.