China's Great Dream

Marriage in China
Guang Xia, the husband, and Qianqian Li, the wife, work in the same factory and were married May 2010. Jia DaiTengFei

The first changes were small, more style than substance. Citizens long accustomed to heavily scripted official pomp were startled by televised scenes of a surprisingly relaxed top leadership meeting. China's new Communist Party boss, Xi Jinping, and six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee were dressed informally. Xi spoke off the cuff, in contrast with his uptight predecessor Hu Jintao, whom many Chinese dubbed "robotic." On other occasions, two senior leaders called on authorities to cut the jargon and grandstanding.

Then, China's new top graft buster, Wang Qishan, met with a number of anti-corruption experts and interrupted one who addressed him as "dear respected secretary." "Drop the formalities," Wang reportedly told the group. The new message from the top: just get to the point. After less than a month into his job, Xi ushered in a new leadership style that's taken China by surprise. He has exhorted citizens to pursue "national rejuvenation" and a "Great Chinese Dream," while cracking down on graft, trimming official perks, and streamlining bureaucracy. At least in some key areas, Xi seems poised to break with the past decade of stagnation, during which time China's economy slowed and political reforms regressed. If the changes take hold, they could have far-reaching implications both at home and abroad. Many Chinese seem heartened, even inspired, by Xi's down-to-earth style. But many of China's jittery neighbors worry that Beijing's dream could become their nightmare, leading to an increasingly nationalistic and aggressive foreign policy.

Since Xi and his new team were promoted to the top of the party in mid-November, their to-do list has focused on repairing the regime's tarnished image.

This past year has been the leadership's annus horribilis; the party has been rocked by high-level political purges, corruption scandals, and revelations that authorities and their relatives abused power to amass enormous wealth. Xi himself warned that unless China's crooked cadres are reined in, the country could experience growing unrest—even collapse . Now, 2013 is shaping up to be the year of the party makeover. After the new Politburo met in early December, state media reported on a sweeping campaign to trim official spending and roll up the red carpet. New dos and don'ts for party functionaries include eliminating lavish airport welcoming ceremonies, infl ated official entourages, and jargon-filled "empty and unnecessary documents." Official expenditures, foreign travel, the size and number of government meetings, extravagant banquets, traffic-snarling motorcades, and the mindless but self-aggrandizing public appearances in which many leaders specialize—like pompous ribbon-cutting and ground-breaking ceremonies—must be trimmed back.

The campaign to cut bloat has pleasantly surprised many Chinese. And party watchdogs have also moved quickly in recent weeks to show they're serious about targeting graft. A local party secretary in Chongqing was purged after a sex video went viral online, showing him in bed with a young woman reportedly hired to blackmail him into giving out lucrative contracts. An alternative member of the party's powerful Central Committee, promoted just last month, is now being investigated for corruption. And Chinese authorities asked officials in the gambling enclave of Macao—where much of the casino winnings are believed to be embezzled mainland wealth—to tighten up their scrutiny of financial transfers.

Beijing is preparing more substantial changes, too. Xi and premier-to-be Li Keqiang are expected to unveil an ambitious government restructuring—possibly next spring —that will streamline 44 ministeriallevel government bodies into as few as 24. (The country's central bank is slated to become an independent body, free from supervision by the Chinese cabinet.) Xi also pledged to uphold the rule of law, which has often languished under the weight of official privilege and lack of accountability. "We need to treat people's needs fairly and endeavor to make them feel justice has been done in every single case," he said.

To be sure, previous administrations have assumed office promising to boost law and order—only to get bogged down due to vested interests. (Former premier Zhu Rongji launched a "Strike Hard" campaign against crime and corruption in the '90s; it fizzled after less than a year.) Nor is Xi embracing change to the point of introducing Western-style democracy.

Party leaders seem united in eschewing "Western paths" for their political and economic development. Chinese goals, Chinese values, and Chinese iconography are the foundation of what has come to be known as Xi's watershed "Chinese Dream " speech.

The occasion was a Nov. 29 visit by Xi and the rest of the new Politburo Standing Committee to an exhibition titled "The Road to National Revival" at the recently renovated National Museum in Tiananmen Square. The display pounded home themes of China's victimization at the hands of imperialist foreign bullies, with archival material related to the Opium Wars and Western occupation of extraterritorial "concessions" on Chinese turf. In the second major public speech of his tenure, Xi praised the display of "the great national spirit with patriotism as the core." But the bit that really captured public attention was his rousing call to pursue the Chinese Dream and national rejuvenation. Prof. Zhou Xiaozheng of Renmin University interpreted this as a championing of "reforms, dropping the [ideological] theories of the Cultural Revolution, working hard and reviving China's glorious history. It's really good, and I'm cautiously optimistic."

In the eyes of the outside world, however, the big question remains: what exactly is this Chinese Dream? The symbolism is potent but vague on details. The phrase evokes China's past glories, but not any precise period. Rather, says Hu Xingdou, of the Beijing Institute of Technology, China's renaissance refers to achievements related to innovation and creativity—such as the compass, papermaking, movable type, and gunpowder, which are collectively known as the "four great inventions."

"The Chinese Dream is different from the American Dream , which focuses on individual success," says Hu . "We mainly stress national power and dignity." But he also cautioned, "If a nation cares only about the dignity of the state and not of the individual… it could turn into a horrible country. The Chinese Dream should mean more power to the citizenry."

Yet even the Chinese Dream iconography is fraught with ambiguity. When the new National Museum reopened in Tiananmen Square after a protracted renovation, a gigantic statue of the late Great Sage Confucius was erected prominently in front of the building. One night, the statue quietly disappeared; it is now hidden in an internal courtyard. Confucius had promoted an ethos based on strictly hierarchical relationships—between ruler and citizen, elders and children, husband and wife—that has often been seen as an excuse for perpetuating autocracy. (During the anarchical Cultural Revolution, Red Guards prosecuted a bloody "criticize Confucius" campaign.) The removal of the sage's statue "shows differing opinions inside the party on what theory to follow for China's revival," says Professor Zhou. He also mentioned ancient China's "four great inventions" but added a fifth—China's current civilization and law.

Implementing the rule of law is perhaps Xi's most urgent and yet most daunting challenge. Even some party loyalists bemoan the erosion of judicial independence, legal procedures, and protections for lawyers over the past decade. At a symposium in late November, prominent Tsinghua University professor Sun Liping—Xi's doctoral thesis adviser, known as the "imperial tutor"—astonished the audience by declaring that "evil use of power" had resulted in the state's "incompatibility with the rule of law." His comments circulated widely via social networking.

Sun said that China's problem today is not whether its laws are sound but rather a more basic question: "Whether the government can actually operate within the law." He concluded that the obsession with "stability maintenance" had undermined the law and the public's trust in government. "The people have become ungovernable," he said, calling on authorities to implement reforms quickly—within five or 10 years—before the window for such peaceful changes will have closed. "There has been a quiet revolution," he warned.

Even if Xi and his team manage to win back public confidence, that won't stamp out jitters about what a Chinese Dream means for the outside world. Many Chinese analysts insist his call for national rejuvenation is not a threat. "It's also a wake-up call for Chinese to make contributions to mankind," says Prof. Xu Xianglin , vice dean of the School of Government at Peking University. "It's not an imperialist dream, but a dream in the interest of ordinary people." The symbolism of Xi's speech, Xu says, is that "China used to be very infl uential [in the world] and its reputation was guided by civilization, not armed force."

But not all governments are convinced. Indeed, a stronger mandate for China's new mandarins could make its neighbors even more nervous, not less. Mushrooming grassroots nationalism has prodded Beijing to become more assertive in territorial disputes with Japan and a number of Southeast Asian countries over islands in the South and East China Seas.

These frictions are unfolding against the backdrop of Washington's "pivot" back to the Asian region after years of entanglement in the Afghan and Iraq wars. Over the past year, Washington has unleashed based military personnel in Australia, and shored up ties to Japan and the Philippines while wooing governments that have significant trade ties with China. Recently President Barack Obama was the first U.S. president to visit Burma and Cambodia. "The presence of the U.S. in the region has provoked nationalism in China, especially in civil society," says Prof. Zhao Kejin , of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies. "China doesn't think there'll be a new cold war [but] the U.S. should say clearly why it wants to develop relations with Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and so on. Otherwise people who don't understand might think the U.S. wants to contain China."

While China's military muscle and ability to project power in the Pacific lags behind the U.S., Beijing is making strides in these areas. Chinese nationalists celebrated and ignited firecrackers when Beijing recently announced the successful test fl ight of a J-15 fighter jet off the deck of the country's first aircraft carrier. Though its military capabilities remain to be seen, the carrier "encourages the national psyche and social confidence," says Prof. Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University. "The aim of having an aircraft carrier is mainly for preventative purpose. There's a lot of pressure on China, with the U.S. deploying 60 percent of its nuclear submarines in Asia and the Pacific."

In its maritime claims, China seems to be pushing the envelope on just about every front. On Dec. 3, Vietnamese authorities protested that a Chinese fishing boat had cut the seismic cable attached to a Vietnamese vessel exploring for oil and gas near the Gulf of Tonkin. (The South China Sea is Beijing's main offshore natural-gas exploration site; one reason for the intensity of the regional disputes there is the race to lock down energy resources.) The incident even raised hackles in India, which operates several joint ventures with Petro Vietnam in the area. When asked if the Indian Navy was poised to send vessels to protect its interests, Navy head Adm. D.K. Joshi told Indian reporters, "Are we preparing for it?… The short answer is 'yes.'"

Then there's the recent passport furor. More than five months ago, Beijing began issuing new 10-year passports that showed disputed maritime areas as Chinese territory. The delineation—a line comprised of nine long dashes—presents Southeast Asian governments that dispute Chinese claims with a dilemma. Should they stamp visas into the passports—tacitly accepting China's claim of sovereign territory—or not? Rival claimants are the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Previously they'd assumed the so-called ninedash line was China's opening gambit as all sides jockeyed to negotiate a resolution. Now Beijing seems to be treating the line as a fait accompli. (Vietnam protested the move officially and is stamping visas and immigration chops on separate pieces of paper, not in the Chinese passports.)

The proliferating disputes feed talk of a new cold war emerging in Asia, pitting the U.S. and its closest regional allies against China and its friends. "The U.S. will not choose war but will make good use of regional confl icts to weaken China and find ways to create problems for China," said Shen Shishun at the Chinese Institute for International Studies. "Even though China doesn't have the comprehensive strength to challenge the U.S., the U.S.… is acting to prevent China's rise and influence in the world."

International tensions are likely to escalate further. In early December, authorities in South China's Hainan Island, adjacent to the South China Sea, announced new regulations allowing their law-enforcement officials to board, search, or repel foreign vessels found engaging in "illegal" activities within the 12-nautical-mile zone surrounding islands claimed by China. (The precise scope of such activities was not defined, but Beijing claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, through which a third of interna tional trade goods are transported.) While Xi's involvement in management of the disputes is unclear, he now heads the party's foreign-policy "leading small group"—the top policymaking body—and has overseen experts studying maritime disputes. Hainan's new regulations are slated to go into effect on Jan. 1. One way or another, the coming year may provide answers to whether Xi's Chinese renaissance is a peace-loving dream—or a nightmare for China's nervous neighbors.