A runner wearing Chinese flags sports a headband that reads 'Fight for the Dream' before a beach run in Qingdao, in eastern China's Shandong province, on October 10, 2020. Image: AFP / Stringer / China Out

As the 90-million-cadre-strong Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrates its centenary on July 1, among a million celebrations, the theme song “Our Dreams Shall Come True” of the documentary series Making a New China has become addictive among the Chinese masses.

Almost matching the fervor of Mao Zedong’s setting up of a “New China” of 1949, this 2021 national carnival, being built around Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” marks the country’s final exit from its “century of humiliation” national narrative to herald “rejuvenation of the nation” as the new goal for its domestic and foreign policies.

Given China’s unprecedented economic rise and President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative converting this economic leverage into political influence, his China Dream edict has come to be viewed as symbolizing Beijing’s roadmap with critical implications for global geopolitics. 

This can already be seen in the way Xi has woven his “China Dream” around two centennial goals clearly defining where he wishes to see China on the 100th anniversary of the CPC in 2021 and where it will be in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. 

Its resemblance to and comparisons with the “American Dream” make it all the more intriguing by portraying it as part of the Sino-American rivalry for global leadership.

Immediately on being elected as secretary general of the CPC in November 2012, Xi was seen using this phrase. It was to become part of official parlance from his speech at the National Museum’s Road to Revival exhibition when he defined the “China Dream” as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” thereby triggering imaginations about Xi’s “New Era” for China.

The context of his speech underlined its intent; the exhibition displayed China’s sufferings under colonial powers during the 19th and 20th centuries and its restoration to greatness under the CPC. 

Again this phrase was used multiple times in his inaugural March 17, 2013, address to the nation as president of China. He said: “We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

This, if anything, also brought to light its contrast with the conceptions of the “American Dream” that espouses the state creating conditions for individuals’ happy, healthy and productive lives, ensuring their liberties and supporting their pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration of Independence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit Happiness.… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

Conversely, Xi’s China Dream encourages individuals to make efforts leading to China’s collective rejuvenation, thereby also benefiting the rest of the world, implying a view of China’s global writ, or Pax Sinica.

Also, unlike Xi being the singular source of the China Dream’s conception, the American Dream has been anything but defined and uniform. It has had multiple and varying centers of gravity around folklores about individual achievers from George Washington to Henry Ford or Michael Jackson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. They changed not just American but global ways of life. 

Xi’s China Dream, which extols strengthening the Chinese state, could actually stifle rather than promote the goals of the American Dream.

Time magazine once called Xi’s China Dream a “protean” concept that defines national rejuvenation in an ever growing number of targets for its citizens to ensure China’s international centrality.

It also emphasized how Xi’s China Dream reveals pursuits in mutually opposite directions. There is enormous emphasis on China’s material modernization – for example making the People’s Liberation Army a world-class armed force by 2035 – while revering its ancient classical traditions.

Of course, it is not necessary for the two dreams to follow the same outline. Indeed, Xi has often referred to individual and family betterment being part of the China Dream, yet he portrays the state (read Party) as its facilitator and the people’s natural ally.

This gets portrayed in narratives of the Party having lifted 800 million out of poverty or having eliminated acute poverty by 2020 instead of poor people having worked hard to pull themselves out of it. 

The American Dream by contrast expects the state to get out of the people’s way, and some see the state as obstructing individual pursuits of their personal “American Dreams.” The melting-pot imagination of the American Dream is seen as breaking from social moorings and moving forward from old ways of life. Xi on the other hand reverently stresses filial piety and the Chinese classics. 

Given Xi’s keen interest in classical Chinese poetry, the expression “China Dream” (or zhongguo meng, or 中国梦) has been explored in multiple ancient poems alluding a certain fondness for restoring earlier dynasties. This is what explains Western concerns about the China Dream reflecting a desire to revive China’s glory. This raises the question: Will the manifestation of the China Dream make the eclipse of the American Dream inevitable? 

Various publications on this theme have reinforced such Western anxieties. Most visible among these remains the 2015 book China Dream by retired PLA Colonel Liu Mingfu, who places it within the Sino-US “marathon contest” or the “duel of the century” ending in China taking the United States’ place as world leader.

Another famous 2017 book by Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? appears relatively optimistic while asking if China and the US can escape the “Thucydides Trap,” alluding to a different possibility.

Indeed, Xi has sought to address these concerns but by putting the blame on the other side.  During his September 2015 Seattle visit he said: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

Since then, the removal of the two-term limit on the Chinese presidency, and Xi’s second term not showcasing future successors, thus marking end of collective leadership under Xi – who, emulating Mao, may continue to lead China until 2032 or even longer – have added to anxieties about his China Dream. 

At the CPC’s historic 19th Party Congress of October 2017, Xi pronounced: “We will make it our mission to see that by 2035, the modernization of our national defense and our forces is basically complete, and that by the end of mid-21st century our people’s armed forces have been fully transformed into world-class forces.”

The Covid-19 pandemic that began in China and has engulfed much of humanity has only made it more likely that the country will be the world’s largest economy by 2030. This has also witnessed Chinese diplomats displaying a streak of “wolf warrior” diplomacy – aggressively pushing one’s own version without listening to the other side. 

So much so that the first in-person Sino-American “2+2” gathering in February in Alaska was described as their most combative interaction since the US recognition of the PRC in 1979. 

The Alaska event was followed by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April adopting the 281-page Strategic Competition Act 2021 that empowers the US to compete with China “across all dimensions of national and international power.” 

US President Joe Biden’s “America is Back” campaign to reclaim global leadership has already shifted this “duel of the century” from rhetoric to reality. 

If history has shown us anything, it is that reality has always been murkier that the fictions circulating about it. Without doubt, unlike the 20th-century succession of global leadership from Europe (or Britain) to the United States, this 21st-century Oriental aspirant to global leadership portends deeper vulnerabilities. 

All eyes are now set on Presidents Xi and Biden meeting at the Group of Twenty session in October in Italy. This may see them setting the tone of world’s two most powerful “dreams,” mutual equations of which may determine a large part of the shared future of humankind.

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).