In November 2012, shortly after being anointed to the highest position in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and even before being named head of the government and military, Xi Jinping announced that he had a dream. This in itself was not a cause for concern. Most of us are familiar with the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who also had a dream. But whereas Dr. King explicitly linked his dream to an end to racial segregation, Xi’s dream was vague. It was only later that Xi added that his dream meant the great “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation.
The Chinese people were confused.
Some people thought they knew what Xi had in mind. Liu Mingfu, a senior colonel in the Chinese army, was delighted. He had written a book two years before called China Dream, in which he argued that China should be the most powerful country in the world, with the most powerful military. Later on, Xi seemed to have softened his views, explaining that this was for defensive purposes only.
However, at his meeting with then-President Barack Obama at Sunnylands in 2013, Xi equated the China Dream with the American dream. Ironically, just a few days before, the tightly controlled official state paper, Renmin Ribao, stated explicitly that the Chinese dream was “completely different” from the American dream, and for two reasons. First, the dream of the Chinese people is to create prosperity for the entire nation, while Americans focus only on creating individual wealth. Second, Chinese depend solely on their own strength, whereas Americans exploit the resources of other nations.
These are both highly debatable statements, but the interesting thing is that the paper differed so blatantly with the nation’s leader on the eve of an important summit. There is some chance the discrepancy could have been accidental or—somewhat more likely, but impossible to prove—that it represents a difference of opinion at the highest level of the CCP.
As is typical in China when a leader announces a new slogan, the propaganda machine swung into action. Seminars were held, in which academics discussed the great man’s ideas, always coming to the conclusion that the ideas were brilliant. Scholarly journals carried articles echoing the academics’ words. The military held meetings to explain the dream and record the unswerving loyalty that officers and enlistees had pledged to the China Dream. There was even a video game on the China Dream. By 2015, some content had been added to the dream in the form of “four comprehensives,” but, again, it was all quite vague.
The Chinese government often says that we should watch what other countries do. Here, watching what the Chinese do has been troubling. My view is that Xi’s dream is closer to Liu Mingfu’s, but that it has two prongs: one military and one economic, with the latter being the most important and the military held in reserve as a “fear factor.” In other words, a given country knows that if it cannot be squeezed economically, then force will be used.
At least some Chinese have figured out the motives of the Chinese government, which are to keep the Chinese people quiet domestically while taking over internationally. Both ends are served by creating an enemy, allowing Chinese citizens’ dissatisfactions with their lives to be projected onto a foreign country. In this case, the foreign country that has been singled out for this purpose is Japan.
The Chinese are constantly reminded of who their “enemy” is whenever some sensitive anniversary comes along. By my count, there are six of these, including such dates as the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the Nanjing Incident. Museums are built to enshrine Beijing’s version of what happened. Schoolchildren on class trips and tourists are taken to see them. Some of these are tasteless, such as these urinals in a bathroom in Harbin.
Recently, as if to wring even more political mileage out of these anniversaries, the Chinese government officially added six years to World War II, which it now refers to as the “Fourteen-Year War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression.”
But at least some Chinese citizens distrust what their government is trying to do. In cartoon, the building in the background is Beijing’s leading restaurant for Peking duck. The ducks in front of the restaurant are holding anti-Japanese banners, receiving pamphlets, and being urged to go inside the restaurant. On the right, behind the restaurant wall, the ducks are being slaughtered. (The duck in the middle is wearing a Japanese camera.)
China’s plans actually go far beyond trying to subordinate Japan, and include creating a new world order, with the People’s Republic creating and enforcing the rules. Chinese cartoonists have also satirized the international aspects of Xi’s China Dream. It is not difficult to see this “rejuvenation” as the revival of the concept of tianxia, or “realm,” under which the Chinese emperor claimed to rule all under heaven. The dream involves both economic and military aspects.
China has created the Bo’ao Forum as a way to replace the forum held every year in Davos, Switzerland. Bo’ao is held in warm Hainan during the cold months of the year in most of the world. The picture of Xi Jinping at Bo’ao is redolent of earlier Chinese emperors holding court with representatives from vassal states. (The sizes of the chairs leave no doubt as to who is in control of this meeting.)
In 2010, a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels. Even though the Chinese boat was at fault, China threatened economic retaliation and so was able to have Japan bear the blame for the incident. Thus, Japan is already familiar with the Chinese use of economic levers to get compliance with their wishes. The Philippines also backed down in Scarborough Shoal after the Chinese government “discovered” insect pests on Filipino fruit and said it would not import the fruit. Similarly, Argentina was forced to withdraw anti-dumping actions it had filed against China in the World Trade Organization, after China switched its large purchases of soya from Argentina to Brazil.
But there is another, and much more far-reaching plan to establish a new world trading order. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) scheme, which encompasses the entire globe, is centered, of course, on China. The idea is loosely based on an imaginative re-creation of ancient silk routes. (The Chinese government is not being very careful with history, although Beijing is quick to criticize other countries for forgetting history.) China even founded a bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to help with the financing for the OBOR project. The AIIB is headquartered in Beijing, and China is its major stockholder.
This is presented as a win-win situation for all: less developed areas need infrastructure upgrades so that they can develop; developed areas need the Chinese market if they are to grow out of their current sluggish economies. The Chinese have even created a song to illustrate the happy, win-win cooperation on offer.
Critics of OBOR are not so optimistic. They think that, for China, OBOR means “our belt, our road.” The critics also suggest renaming the project to “one belt, one way,” meaning that the scheme will be to China’s benefit, and not those of its trading partners. Skeptics point out, for example, that trainloads of Chinese-made goods arrive in Europe but return to China empty. An Indian admiral said OBOR is not a multilateral development but a Chinese-led bilateral arrangement with multiple partners. All in all, the critics argue, China means to export its excess production capacity, and to create a colonial empire.
There have been huge increases in China’s annual military budget since 1989. In 2017, China was congratulated for increasing its military spending by “only” a little over 7%.
Much of this has gone toward impressive advances in weapons, such as hypersonic missiles. These missiles are reported to travel at five to 10 times the speed of sound, and are almost impossible to intercept and destroy. They can be used to deliver nuclear weapons, and can also perform precision strikes with conventional warheads.
While weapons like this grab headlines, military upgrades which garner less attention may ultimately be more dangerous. One example is the Chinese Coast Guard’s newest ship, the CCG-3901, described as a “monster cutter.” It’s really a modified warship, just painted coast guard white rather than battleship gray, with warship-quality sensors, heavier weapons, and even a helicopter pad.
The “monster” displaces 12,000 tons, as opposed to the largest Japanese Coast Guard vessel, which displaces 6,500 tons (under full load, 9,500 tons). These “monsters” are being dispatched to the East China Sea for use in intimidation exercises meant to back China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands. More vessels in this class are expected to be sent to the South China Sea to back the PRC’s claims there.
So far, this combination of economic pressure and military threats, backed by the deployment of greater force, has been quite successful. In essence, China is osmosing the islands rather than invading them. China does this through “salami tactics,” moving forward by very small increments, no one of which is large enough for Japan, or Vietnam, or Taiwan, to retaliate against.
Photo : Japan Coast Guard’s vessel crashes with a Chinese vessel at Senkaku. Provided by Hitoshi Nakama, Ishigaki city council member
The intrusion of Chinese ships around Japanese territorial waters has increased dramatically since September 2012.
Will the Dream Be Realized?
China has been on a winning streak. For example, it successfully defied the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the illegality of its 9-dash line. China has also been buying politicans in Australia, taking allies from Taiwan, and chasing Japanese and Vietnamese fishermen from their traditional areas.
However, China also faces many obstacles.
For one thing, China’s economy has been slowing down. In what looks like a desperate effort to prop up the value of the renminbi and keep workers from being laid off, the Chinese government is running up huge debts. Chinese and foreign economists warn that this cannot be kept up: there will be a day of reckoning, and the longer these unwise policies are continued, the worse the crash will be. It takes more and more investment to keep the economy growing, as can be seen in the following chart. (The person who created the chart described the situation depicted herein as “China’s death spiral.”)
China has also agreed to spend over a trillion dollars on OBOR. However, many of the states to which China has lent money may not be able to repay the loans, which will leave China with even more debt.
Xi Jinping has also made many powerful enemies within China. His efforts to bring all power into his own hands have reversed an evolution toward semi-collective decision-making. No one wants another Mao, the man who caused so much sorrow for the Chinese people. Many people resent the cult of personality that Xi has created for himself.
The Chinese censors became very angry at Time Magazine’s comparison of Xi and Mao, and pulled all copies of the issue from sale.
Xi has gone on a well-publicized campaign against corruption, but he has mainly used this campaign to purge his enemies and put them in prison. These include billionaire businessmen and -women, as well as high-ranking military figures. Morale in the military is said to be very low. Powerful interests have ways to resist, and there are growing signs of discontent. One of the tycoons, Guo Wengui, who is in New York, is fighting back by making counter-accusations against Xi. If, as expected, there are big economic problems ahead, Xi Jinping will be held responsible.
A third obstacle is the ability of other countries to resist Chinese expansion. So far, the results of this have been minimal. This is largely because no one country wants to be the first to stand up to Chinese aggression, fearing that the full weight of China’s retaliatory power will fall on whichever state acts in defiance of Beijing.
It could be that a combination of the first and the second obstacles will cause China, like the Soviet Union before it, to fall apart due to internal weaknesses. However, this could be a long time in the future. My hope is that countries will put aside their differences with each other to work together to resist Chinese aggression.
One country that can play a leading role in resisting China is Japan. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has been doing many of the right things, such as:
- increasing defense budgets, even though by very small amounts that hardly match what China is doing
- trying to draw Australia, India, the United States, and Japan into an informal quadrilateral group
- making the arms it produces available to Southeast Asian states
- trying to change the Constitution to allow for the right of collective self-defense
Accomplishing this will not be easy. Among other things, China has been skillful at using the self-vetoing forces in Japanese politics as a way to manage its relations with Japan. But unless Japan can keep doing the right things, China’s dream will turn into a nightmare, not only for Japan, but for the rest of the world.
June Teufel Dreyer is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami in the United States. Her most recent book, Middle Kingdom and the Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations Past and Present, won the fourth annual Japan Study Award from the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals in Tokyo.