China's new leadership has sought to inspire the country with its call to realize the "Chinese Dream."
We know some things about the goals of that "dream":
• Overcome the legacies of the "century of humiliation"
• Successfully achieve a wealthy and strong country" (富强国家)
• Rejuvenate the Chinese folk (复兴中华民族)-- something that goes beyond narrow national state boundaries
The "dream" is collective and is responsive to deep historical sentiments in China (as highlighted in the recent volume, Wealth and Power, by Orville Schell and John Delury)
• It is phrased in a way that to a significant extent each citizen can read his/her own deepest aspirations into this "dream" – that is, all may share the goals of the "dream," but there is a wide array of views about specific priorities and about the best path(s) to take to get from here to there.
• Scholars could have made comparable statements about China at almost any time over the past more than 100 years – perhaps the key difference is that the country is now feasibly closer to being able to realize this dream than it has been at any time since the beginning of the "century of humiliation."
While many specifics remain unclear at this point, the new Chinese leadership has provided some broad guidelines to major components of the Chinese Dream. A partial list of these includes:
• Fairer distribution of the benefits of economic development, including reducing urban-rural differences.
• Building an ecological civilization, where greater attention will be paid to addressing the major environmental issues of air pollution, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
• Shifting the development model to one that is based more on domestic household consumption, innovation, and efficiency and is less based on exports and investment.
• Creating the institutional capacity to provide the services and related requirements for dealing with a massive demographic transition to an elderly society over the coming two decades.
• Reducing the government's administrative interference in the economy so that by 2020 market forces will play a "decisive" role in the allocation of resources.
• Maintaining social stability in part though upholding the monopoly on political power of the CPC, with measures taken to improve the quality of the CPC itself (such as through fighting corruption) and increasing its skills at social governance.
China's leaders face an extraordinarily complicated set of obstacles in trying to achieve these and related goals that are central components of successfully pursuing the Chinese Dream. Most of these are well known, such as:
• The most rapid demographic transition in peacetime history, and the first that will produce a country whose population is old before the country in per capita terms is rich.
• Resource scarcity – especially the scarcity of usable water in the North China Plain but extending on a per capita basis to most types of natural resources – that is of staggering dimensions.
• A revolution in information technology that is producing rapid changes in society whose repercussions for governance are inevitably uncertain but potentially very consequential.
• The sheer magnitude of the social strains generated by simultaneous massive changes in terms of urbanization, marketization, globalization, growth of the non-state sector, and the information revolution. All are necessary for long-term success as a modern state and society, but each in the short run is a challenge to social stability.
• The particular challenges created when such rapid and multifaceted changes make it difficult to develop a settled sense of social ethics, which has always been a distinguishing characteristic of Chinese civilization. The Chinese political system is highly capable and pragmatic and has managed many major challenges in the past. I raise the above issues not to suggest that pessimism is warranted but rather to indicate the types of objective major obstacles that must be handled in order to satisfy national aspirations to achieve the Chinese Dream. Within this broad space, the specific issue I've been asked to address is "China's governance and the Chinese Dream." The "resolution" adopted by the Third Plenum provides the best vehicle for examining this topic.
• The "reach" of the contemporary Chinese state is massive, and the ways it operates have a huge impact on developments in the economy, society, and most other spheres.
• The Third Plenum "resolution" lays out a substantive conception of directions of change in Chinese policy between now and 2020 that are exceptionally wide-ranging and complicated. On balance, these changes seek to enhance the importance of:
- market forces in determining the allocation and utilization of resources,
- the legal system in assuring basic rights and fair outcomes, o property rights in improving the assignment of responsibilities (e.g., in stewardship of natural resources),
- bureaucratic reforms (e.g., in leadership in the DIC system) to reduce corruption,
- and monetary and fiscal policy changes to shift incentives throughout the economy in order to create a more efficient, productive, fair, and sustainable set of economic and social outcomes.
The implications for governance of these changes are very complicated and in many cases potentially contradictory. I hope this is a topic that will receive substantial attention in the course of this conference.
• Nobody at this point can fully foresee either the changes necessary in the political system itself in order for these reforms to be implemented effectively or the impact on the political system of the outcomes of the reforms as they take hold and produce new economic and social realities.
One clear, consistent theme in this long and complicated "resolution" is that the CCP will strengthen its leadership in all spheres, the Party will enhance its policy of 党管干部, and within the Party the Center will strengthen its role and its insistence on internal discipline.
• In short, the success of a more modern, well-educated, wealthy, internally and internationally connected Chinese population will depend on the wisdom, capabilities, and incorruptibility of Party cadres at all levels.
• This is a major challenge. It will require huge changes to the current realities within the Party, the current distribution of power within the political system, and the current incentives and practices throughout the polity.
• A great deal will depend on how Xi Jingping will actually implement the core features of the program he has laid out and how he will seek to create incentives and constituencies to support his programmatic goals. In sum, President Xi has now made very clear where he stands and where he wants the country to go under his leadership, and he has achieved CCP CC endorsement of this overall program.
• But the polity is already massive, with complex internal structures, norms, incentives, principles, and existing policies and regulations.
• Navigating this terrain to produce the massive changes he has identified will require tremendous political skill and will inevitably generate many crises that will need to be managed and resolved.
• And the market itself will produce unpredictable and at times very unwelcome outcomes that will also require skillful political adjustments to keep things moving in the desired directions. Overall, the Third Plenum has given us in broad outline a fairly good idea of Xi's understanding of the Chinese Dream.
• This is a Dream that foresees massive adjustments in China's governance, even while maintaining the absolute supremacy of rule by the CCP.
• It will require extraordinary skill to manage the politics of turning this broad Dream into operational programs that can successfully be implemented.
• And the implications for future governance – which cannot be predicted with any degree of confidence – will be determined not only by the strategy for implementing the Dream but also by the forces that develop as China's economy and society are themselves transformed.
The author is Senior Researcher with the Brookings Institution
(China.org.cn December 7, 2013)