The Chinese Dream and Ideological Leadership in China

Walk down any street, get on any subway, read any newspaper, and in China today all there seems to be is 梦, 中国梦, 中国梦. You would think it was the Chinese characters for iPhone 6 the way it seems to penetrate the public space so comprehensively. But no, 中国梦 (zhōngguómèng) or ‘Chinese Dream’ is actually just the latest version of socialism with Chinese characteristics; the new iPhone Xi, totally different from the previous version that existed last year, we promise.
Every paramount leader in China since 1949 has had to have his own special brand of philosophy and slogans. Ideological leadership is an important part of the job description for any General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chairman Mao was the model; he had all the ideas about what communism in China should be. Deng Xiaoping was a master of the slogan, the original ‘Mad Man’ of China in so many ways. And Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao also had their own set of bumper sticker phrases and interesting desires for the perpetually bewildered Chinese public. A new leader means a new set of ambitions for Chinese people; it can be hard to keep up sometimes.
What is the Chinese Dream?
In a nutshell, 中国梦 is whatever the Chinese government needs it to be. That sounds vague but it’s supposed to be, because the phrase中国梦 came about before the actually concept did. Back in 2012 when Xi Jinping was transitioning into the leadership position in China he alluded to what his brand of ideological leadership would be. Some of it included using his power to rejuvenate the Chinese nation. Then, by 2020, have the majority of Chinese people living a moderately well-off lifestyle. And then by the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Revolution, China will no longer be dreaming and will be a fully developed nation.
This is all very good, but are there any specifics in the中国梦? So far specifics have been limited to popular reoccurring dreams like improving economic statistics (something the government can easily manipulate so we can be specific here) or improving moral, spirits, and feelings (something harder to manipulate so we should be vague here).
中国梦 obviously is based on the ‘American Dream’ concept which broadly speaking might be the dream to have a decent job, own your own house in the suburbs, have you kids go to good colleges, basically living the idealized middle class American lifestyle. And from what you can see living in China, this is exactly what Chinese people want too. It is what most people everywhere want, to live a comfortable life, raise their families, and have some dignity as human beings.
The problem for中国梦 is that it can’t come out and just be “China wants to be American”, there is too much nationalism, political legitimacy, historical revisionism riding on the notion that America is a grossly unequal, unfair, ultra-capitalist evil empire. China is different; its better, they want to say.
So中国梦 is really more like the same set of approved national ideological ambitions with a new shiny name and higher pixel count (and now available in gold). “National renewal” = revenge on the Japanese, “the rule of law” = do what we say or we will use the law to punish you, “follow the constitution” = it says you have freedom of speech but we all know what it REALLY means.
Why does China have ‘ideological leadership’?
Ignoring the issue of what is the 中国梦, if you are a Chinese paramount leader, you gotta get a gimmick, you simply have to have a set of texts and slogans for the media, academia, and the ‘China expert’ crowd to over-analyse and misinterpret.
It all began with Chairman Mao Zedong with his Little Red Book of Thoughts published to indoctrinate the PLA but eventually indoctrinating the whole of society leading towards the disastrous Cultural Revolution, where Mao had us all believing his thoughts were all we needed. This managed to reverse his fortune in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine and to reinstate him as the Red Emperor of China. His ideological leadership was mainly about keeping him as the leader through ideological indoctrination; nobody is advocating for his中国梦 of a global nuclear war these days.
Deng Xiaoping understood deeply the importance of ideological leadership in China for his own personal power and that of the CCP. While holding no formal position of power after 1983, he was still very much the architect of China’s economic transformation simply by being able to provide reformers with ideological cover for their blatantly capitalistic ideas.
Deng was an expert at slogans and had one for any situation: “It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice,” “Cross the river by touching the stones,” “When the big tree falls, the monkeys run away,” “Seek truth from facts.” The basic premise of Deng’s ideological leadership was to allow Chinese people to think for themselves again and to be open to new ways of doing things. It worked; until 1989.
After that the CCP take greater control in its use of political sloganeering and ideology and subsequent paramount leaders have been eager to be known as ideological leaders more like Mao than like Deng. By this it is meant that leaders now want to shape the minds of the people rather than encourage them to shape the minds of leaders.
Jiang Zemin’s official ideology was known as ‘The Three Represents’ by which he meant:
“Our Party must always represent the requirements for developing China's advanced productive forces, the orientation of China's advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people. These are the inexorable requirements for maintaining and developing socialism, and the logical conclusion our Party has reached through hard exploration and great praxis.”
This is obviously not a pithy as Deng (or Mao for that matter), but is much less open to interpretation despite never fully explaining what any of these phrases actually mean.
But that is the point of ideological leadership in a one-party state, it is about being specific enough to dominate the political agenda, but being vague enough so as not be held accountable for something you said. It is the same as censorship rules, if you have vague rules on censorship but strict punishment, people are more likely to self-censor because they don’t want to risk being punished by saying the wrong thing because it has never being definitively stated what they cannot say. Best not say anything.
Finally, Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Development’ was just as bland and bureaucratic as the leader himself. It mainly involved branding any action the government took as scientific and therefore true and not open to interpretation. It was largely a continuation of the major goals of the Party set by its original leaders just now with a market economy, but they can use Deng to give cover for that oddity in a supposedly Marxist-Leninist state.
Ideological leadership is important to cement political legitimacy for the leader and ultimately the CCP to rule over China in a one-party state. Things have changed in China a lot since the bad old days of straight-up totalitarian, but some facets remain and this includes the propaganda of slogans, banners, and ‘thoughtful’ leaders.
中国梦 is the latest incarnation of that important feature of governing China. Xi Jinping has created for himself by promoting in the phrase中国梦 everywhere a way to make himself and the CCP present in the daily lives and thoughts of Chinese people.
It’s brilliant! All you have to do is repeat中国梦 over and over again and you bring the中国梦 aura and中国梦 mystic of the中国梦 leader into the中国梦 lives of millions. 中国梦, 中国梦, 中国梦. Also if you can get the foreign media to repeat ‘Chinese Dream’ ad holmium, you can do whatever you want basically and no one will criticize you because the ‘Chinese Dream’ after all must mean making China more like us in the West, by first banning Instagram of course.
 In-Depth-China      CSA-blog

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