Chinese President Xi Jinping’s use of the expression “Chinese dream” has been a subject of considerable discussion in recent days. It is supposed to be Xi’s new personal slogan which in his own words, among other things, means the “great revival of the Chinese nation.” Western commentators are wondering what it is that Xi’s Chinese dream encapsulates and what its implications are for the global balance of power.
I find it amusing that the West has never paid such minute attention to the utterances of any Indian leader of consequence. That disinterest could be partly explained by the fact that as a global force India still remains a second-rung power and its polity is too diffused for the Western mind. Being a chaotic democracy Western scholars often find it hard to get a handle and read on India. Whatever attention that Indian leaders receive is nowhere close to the detailed attention that Western scholars and commentators pay while carefully deconstructing the meaning of Chinese utterances.
The debate over what “Chinese dream” means takes in its sweep several aspects. There is, of course, the Chinese ambition of global economic dominance. Underpinning this aspect is the awareness among many Chinese people that in the early 19th century the Chinese share of the global GDP was about a third. Then came the Opium Wars of the 1840s which meant the Chinese dominance began to diminish and by the 20th century it had become a shadow of its former self. Currently its share stands at 11 percent and it can be reasonably argued that Xi’s ‘Chinese dream’ could, among other things, mean bringing that share closer to its early 19th century glory.
Then there is the military aspect of that dream which could mean Beijing’s quest to emerge as the sole rival to the U.S. global power and eventually the dominant global power. Some of the contours of that ambition are already visible but they are still nowhere close to being realized. An interesting offshoot of this strategy is the dramatic upsurge in cyber attacks on American government establishments and companies, which now the U.S. directly blames on China’s military. China, of course, rejects the allegations.
Another aspect of interpreting the Chinese dream is whether it also means that individual freedoms of speech and assembly as guaranteed by the Chinese constitution would become a more defined reality.
There are those who say that all of the above have to be part of Xi’s Chinese dream unlike its apparent inspiration, the American dream, which has frequently been more domestic, economic and individual in its dimensions.
I am no expert on China but as someone who has kept up with the goings-on because of my Dalai Lama biography ‘Man Monk Mystic’ (Soon to be issued with new chapters—nice plug) my reading is somewhat different than real Western scholars. The predominant sense one gets of the Chinese dream that it is more about economic stability at home fused with cultural harmony. While military nationalism along with global power are certainly a part of the dream, I wonder whether they are the main motivating factor. The Chinese leadership has to be mindful of the consequences of not keeping its 1.3 billion people economically optimistic and assured. Beyond a point, China cannot fulfill its global ambitions without a considerable degree of domestic harmony and stability.
I suspect the Chinese dream is informed more by pragmatism than raging, grandiose global ambitions. That probably explains the de-escalation of tensions with India after an incursion by Chinese troops some 19 kilometers inside Ladakh. Both sides have jointly withdrawn their troops. That seems to me like a pragmatic approach.