Written by Lauren Johnston.

Soon after becoming Chinese President in November 2012 Xi Jinping spoke of his belief that “The Great Revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese dream”. Attempts to understand the concept of “Chinese dream”, inside and outside of China, have followed extensively since. This post reflects on the evolution of Chinese leaders’ political lexicon since Deng, and finds that Xi’s China dream is a lexical shift, but a policy continuum, allowing for greater aspirational convergence among China’s own poor and rich, and also in China’s foreign relations with developed as well as developing countries.

Reformist leader Deng Xiaoping famously employed the slogan “opening and reform”. Enduring to now have become the commonly used phrase capturing China’s remarkable program of economic reforms since 1979. Lesser-known of Deng’s lexicon however, and directly sharing more in common with the essence of the contemporary Chinese dream, is his 1978 call for the “invigoration of China” (zhenxing zhonghua). In sum, the “invigoration of China” was arguably Deng’s national vision, while “opening and reform” served as the umbrella policy direction that would be used to move the nation toward that vision.

In Deng’s footsteps, President Jiang Zemin’s vision was of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Later in his presidency the broader policy framework of that vision emerged as the “Three Represents”. The Three Represents are: 1) the development trend of advanced productive forces; 2) the orientations of an advanced culture; 3) and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of China. The lexicon of Jiang’s leadership was thus explicitly more inclusive than Deng’s, both in directly including social and cultural goals, as well as in explicit reference to the whole population. It began the process of pushing the boundaries from a tangible to an aspirational national vision.

Successor to Jiang, President Hu Jintao, continued with the vision of rejuvenation. He also continued to move the vision in a more social inclusive direction, coining the phrase “harmonious society” as his umbrella policy reference. That notion is said to include a stable political environment, a prosperous economy, and people able to live in peace and to work in comfort as social welfare continuously improves. Amid tensions arising from decades of transition, Hu reverted to Confucian notions of harmony in order to stabilise China’s internal and external politics.

Into such footsteps, current Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” is easier to appreciate as a continuum of the agenda of his recent predecessors. Where it arguably reaches forward however is in its aspirational qualities, and how these can be applied both inside and outside of China. The context of its arrival is a time of post-financial crisis economic policy change. Just as Deng had said, “let some get rich first”, a small minority indeed are now extremely rich. One of Xi’s tasks is thus to raise the relative standard of living for the rest. Amid tougher international economic conditions economic policy makers face walking a tightrope to realise these goals.

The blueprint for navigating that tightrope is the 60-point output of the November 2013 18th Central Committee Third Plenum, which outlines steps toward China’s broad passage to becoming “a moderately well-off society”, and the economic essence of the “Chinese Dream”. The vision is of a society where all citizens, whether rural or urban, enjoy a comfortable even if basic, standard of living. In numbers, this equates with China having a per capita income of approximately $10,000 (some cities, such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin have already reached this level) by 2020 (the 100th centenary of the Chinese Communist Party), transferring the majority of people to live in cities (urbanization), and by 2030 becoming a science and technological leader.

Less tangibly, the qualities of this particular choice of political lexicon are interesting for the spread of newly available aspirational applications. Domestically, unlike the mechanical inferences of ‘opening and reform’, the China Dream is implicitly applied and even desired at the level of the Chinese nation as well as at the level of households and individuals. The dream that is provides scope for individuality within a broader collective while concurrently being accessible uniquely to all layers of society. Rich and poor alike can dream. Perhaps the poor may even be relatively dream rich.

The China Dream’s concurrent resonance with the long-standing American dream, may offer two immediately obvious benefits. At the heart of the American dream lies a state-of-mind of optimism that allows American individuals, households and the nation to overcome challenges and realise their inter-generational goals of sustainable and rising prosperity. Inducing such a spirit within China may help the nation to replicate America’s success. This also may present a structural break from recent hardship. Secondly, and perhaps also toward inducing the former, Xi may be seeking to use the notion of a respective Chinese and American dream as a platform for moving toward the evolution of more peer-based relationship with the USA. If so, and if it works with America, that success could serve as a precedent for relations with the rich world elsewhere.

Just as a peer relationship with rich world countries is a new and sensitive notion within recent history, associations between the Chinese and American dream in any case remain those of nuance. In contrast, a link between the Chinese dream and that of an “African dream” was directly proposed by Xi himself in his inaugural presidential speech in Africa. “The Chinese and African people should enhance unity, cooperation, mutual support and assistance so as to make our dreams come true. We should also work with the rest of the world to realize the dream of the world for enduring peace and common prosperity, and make new and even greater contribution to the noble cause of peace and development of mankind,” Xi said in Tanzania in February 2013.

Since the Chinese dream focuses most tangibly and in principle on economic growth, sustainable development, social and economic welfare gains for its people, it naturally converges with the African dream, according to former UN deputy security general and former Tanzanian foreign minister, Asha-Rose Mtengeti Migiro. Now a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, Migiro’s view is that the Chinese and African dreams converge in the area of working together to realise a shared prosperity and mutual development. Amid this type of unity of vision, some analysts assert that African countries may be wise to retain independence of their dreams. Whichever the dream, it appears that South-South aspirations and growth have clearly shifted from the periphery toward the core.

In May 2013 The Economist noted the Chinese dream to be a ‘Dream a little dream of Xi’. In his broad vision of rejuvenation, so far Xi appears to be in step with his recent predecessors. In his choice of China Dream lexicon he has seemingly newly opened an aspirational bridge between the poorest and richest within China. Outside of China the same applies between China and both the poorest and richest countries of the world economy, particularly in outreach to the world’s technological leader, the United States, and the poorest continent Africa. The Chinese dream that is, appears to be the middle dream both inside and outside of a still rejuvenating Middle Kingdom. Whether it enjoys a dream run remains to be seen – or should that ‘Xi-en’?

Lauren Johnston holds a PhD in Economics from Peking University and works freelance for the Economist Intelligence Unit.