New and decorative billboards have sprung up around construction sites in central Beijing recently, featuring colorful clay figurines of children in traditional Chinese dress, engaged in traditional Chinese arts.
One plays a stringed instrument; two others practice calligraphy; another pair plays Chinese checkers. Each picture is accompanied by a vaguely uplifting but generally vacuous poem.
The publicity campaign, which also portrays a retired couple waving a Chinese flag under the slogan “Forward China,” is the latest manifestation of President Xi Jinping’s flagship concept, the “China Dream.”
But what it all means is far from clear.
Eight months into President Xi’s decade-long term of office as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the direction in which he wants to take his country is still uncertain.
He has spoken of the need to uphold the rule of law and this week stressed the importance of “a spirit of reform and innovation,” encouraging liberals to hope that he shares their dream.
But he has also spouted rhetoric reminiscent of Mao Zedong, while State Security officers round up human rights lawyers and social activists in an unusually harsh crackdown, and propaganda moguls squelch public debate of awkward issues.
If that sounds contradictory, says Liu Shangying, a political analyst at the China Academy of Social Sciences, it shouldn’t. “Xi Jinping is a reformist, but not in the Western sense,” Professor Liu explains. “He doesn’t think Western theories of democracy and modernization can help solve China’s problems.”
Reform? What kind of reform?
Rather, Xi believes in the Communist Party and in its unchallenged rule. But the party he has inherited – bloated, bureaucratic, and corrupt – has largely lost the trust of ordinary Chinese citizens. To rectify that problem, Xi has girded his reformist loins.
“Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the Communist Party’s survival or extinction,” he said last month, launching what he called a year-long “thorough clean up” of the party.
“Xi thinks the party is not just out of touch with the masses but out of sync with modernity, not equipped to deal with the social challenges it faces,” says Russell Leigh Moses, dean of the Beijing Center for China Studies. “He thinks the party cannot rule as effectively as it needs to unless it gets its act together. But party reform is not political reform” as Chinese and Western liberals conceive it.
Xi has gone about his task with rare confidence and sense of purpose, having consolidated his authority unusually quickly for a new Chinese leader. As far as outside observers of China’s notoriously secretive system can tell, he does not appear to be hobbled by factional infighting.
Tigers and flies
If Xi presses ahead with his anti-corruption drive, however, and keeps his promise to catch “tigers as well as flies,” senior officials as well as junior ones, he will inevitably anger a lot of vested interests in a ruling party where political and business interests are tightly interwoven.
The Communist Party has staged such campaigns before; this one may be fiercer but critics say there is nothing fundamentally different about it.
“At the moment Xi is seeking to deal with the symptoms, not the causes” of corruption, worries He Bing, who teaches at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. “We have seen no sign of large scale institutional reform.”
Nor is the Communist Party showing any welcome to citizens seeking to join the campaign. Social activists who have demonstrated in support of a law forcing officials to disclose their assets have been arrested.
“The public is invited to be part of the audience, but they are not allowed onstage,” says Dr. Moses, because the party intends to control the speed and scope of any moves against its dishonest members.
But if the party is to maintain such control, it needs a better public image. And to set about creating that image, Xi has dipped into Mao Zedong’s toolbox, reviving a “mass line” campaign to bring the party closer to the people.
The goal, Xi said as he launched the campaign last month, is to eradicate “formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance” among party members. He admonished them to “look in the mirror, groom yourselves, take a bath and seek remedies” for their misdeeds.
High end restaurants are already suffering as officials scale back on banquets, sales of luxury liquor are down, and this week the government declared a five year moratorium on the construction of official buildings in a bid to restrain local authorities from building themselves palaces (see accompanying blog).
Officials’ often extravagant working style is a major gripe for many ordinary Chinese, but changing ingrained habits will not be easy. Official party newspapers are full of daily exhortations, but the duration of the “mass line” campaign, one full year, suggests the scale of the task.
In the meantime, there is no sign that Xi is ready to loosen the party’s grip on political debate.
Though he paid lip service to the rule of law last December in a speech marking the 30-year anniversary of the Chinese Constitution, the official press launched a virulent campaign soon after, branding as Western-influenced traitors those intellectuals urging the government to respect the Constitution.
Party officials also issued a directive recently to universities, banning the discussion of such sensitive issues as press freedom and judicial independence, and there has been no let-up in the persecution of dissidents. Environmental activist Hu Jia was detained on Thursday night in a restaurant as he celebrated his birthday at a party with friends and family.
The Communist Party is more concerned with winning over members of the general public and the “China Dream,” ill-defined though it is, appears to be an attempt to do this.
Xi told President Obama when they met last month that the “dream” means “economic prosperity, national rejuvenation, and people’s wellbeing.” China’s massive propaganda machine has gone into top gear to promote it in newspaper articles, workplace lectures, online advertising, and the sort of billboards erected in Beijing.
“The party’s legitimacy is in trouble, so the ‘China Dream’ is meant to inspire people and give them some hope,” so as to restore the party’s authority and control, says Zheng Yongnian, a specialist in Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.
If there is one leitmotif to Xi’s words and actions since he took power, it is the need to restore Communist Party control over the state and society, argues Francois Godement in a recent paper he wrote for the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations.
“On balance … Xi’s flow of words shuts more doors than it opens,” he writes. “If ‘control’ is the key word for Xi’s style, this will leave little room for major reform.”