for normal For a dictator, it is enough to control the words and deeds of his subjects. Truly ambitious leaders want to guide their people to realize their dreams.
Since taking the helm of the Communist Party a decade ago, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has shown great ambition. Among other things, he tried to inspire patriotic fantasies. Days after becoming general secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping promised his country to restore the “Chinese Dream” of national greatness by mid-century. Over time, the proposed elements of this “renaissance” include building a moderately prosperous, strong, harmonious (i.e., orderly) society, a world-class military, a cleaner environment, and a return to center stage in global affairs. Mr. Xi pledged to liven up that dream again in his report to the 20th party congress last month, in which he was given a mandate for re-election (or possibly life). But China’s business elite, reformist officials and liberal intellectuals have all been cast in the shadows over the conference. Some have noted a disturbing shift in Mr. Xi’s vision of the future, becoming more focused on collective goals and less tolerant of individual dreams.
In Xi Jinping’s second decade in power, the task of making China great again sounds like a mass party-led movement. In this grim vision, Xi spoke of the struggle against pressure from the outside world, especially from the West, led by the United States, and the need to pursue self-reliance. To be sure, parties always crush some dreams. It has never tolerated challenges to its political or ideological authority, or shied away from strictly enforcing its policies. But for most of the past four decades, China’s economic rise and reopening to the world was driven by, and left room for, the individual aspirations of hundreds of millions of people.
These strivers and risk-takers include farmers who have left their villages to become migrant workers and founders of private businesses, from small shops to billion-dollar tech giants. They are families buying semi-finished uptown apartments to increase their son’s chances of getting married. These include parents throwing in after-school classes for struggling children, or buying online English lessons from Western tutors for daughters eager to study abroad. Young Chinese enjoy personal liberties that would have been teetering to their parents or grandparents in the xenophobic frenzy of the Mao era. They watch foreign movies and play American online video games. Others turned to religion for spiritual solace.
For the party, such choices threaten its monopoly on hearts and minds. Some dreams amplify already huge inequalities and exacerbate pressure on the urban middle class, who speak of unbearable competition for the best colleges, jobs, and marriage partners, and may end up marrying less, Fewer children are also being born. The party acted as it should.
Beginning in 2015, Xi began bringing religion under stricter party control. Two years later, at the party’s 19th National Congress, he emphasized the danger of “unbalanced and inadequate growth” and promised to “adjust excessively high incomes.” Since then, he has emphasized “shared prosperity,” an egalitarian policy with populist undertones. In 2021, Xi shocked students and educators by announcing a ban on for-profit tutoring of schoolchildren, including a ban on online language teachers logged in from abroad. Officials called the ban a boon for stressed parents. Alarmed by real estate speculation (a real problem), Xi Jinping has taken steps to curb the industry, sparking a crisis of confidence in the market. Online video game platforms must now limit how many hours a week young players can play. Regulators have slashed the number of foreign films in theaters.
Foreign analysts sometimes struggle to label these trends. They talk about Mr Xi moving to the left economically, but moving to the right as he stokes nationalism. In elite circles in Beijing, there is a bitter debate over whether Mr. Xi favors private enterprise or sees it as an inevitable evil. Sometimes panic seems to precede official policy. The prosecutor recently heard several Chinese intellectuals spontaneously praise the decades-old cooperative and food supplier system in state media and express concern about the return of the planned economy.
One way to understand this moment is to see that Xi Jinping is changing the social contract between the party and the people. Individual aspirations are watered down for the collective good. Scholars talk of a return to the “mass line” of the Mao era: an effort to persuade the public to accept the goals set by the party as a reflection of their own aspirations.
The Chinese dream is changing. In a 2013 letter to archaeology students, Xi Jinping said the grand project required “integrating personal dreams into national undertakings”. At the 19th National Congress in 2017, he urged the party to help young people realize their “youth dreams.” At this year’s 19th National Congress, Xi Jinping chastised young people for listening to the party, pursuing realistic goals and showing greater courage.
Soon after, Xi visited the Hongqi Canal, a massive irrigation project in central Henan province where, in the early 1960s, hordes of farmers and even a youth brigade dug through solid rock to divert water. He urged young people to learn from their ancestors, including those who sacrificed their lives for the common good. Chairman Xi’s tone was rather irritable, he declared: “The younger generation should inherit and carry forward the spirit of hard work, self-reliance, and hard work, abandon arrogance and luxury, and engrave the blood of youth on historical monuments, just as our fathers did. “
For any ruler, revising the social contract involves risks. The party has long derived its legitimacy from growing material prosperity. Now it puts more emphasis on collective national pride. On the face of it, this fits Mr. Xi’s strict worldview. Then again, if the slowdown continues, he may have little choice. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Chinese cities forgotten by the new crown (November 3)
China and US barely speaking despite looming crisis (October 27)
Xi Jinping Never Turns Back (October 17)
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