In the Year of the Dragon: China’s 2012

January 3, 2013   •   By Rebecca Liao

Red Rising, Red Eclipse

Geremie R. Barmé

THE YEAR 2012 should go down as one of China’s most eventful in recent memory. A blind lawyer’s dramatic escape from house arrest, controversies with neighboring countries over control of a string of islands, a Chinese novelist’s win of the Nobel Prize for Literature — there was no shortage of stories related to China that made international headlines. In spite of all this — and in spite of the fall from great heights of neo-Maoist leader Bo Xilai — it felt like a year in which nothing happened.

For the country has fixed its gaze on achieving a specific ambitious goal: that of rapidly becoming a globally admired and thoroughly modern nation through its own original methods, and to have this achievement go down as a formative and positive development in human history. Once China committed to this future, any year that ends without palpable progress towards it is bound to seem inconsequential. What China achieved in 2008, with its high profile Olympics, and in 2010, with the news that it had surpassed Japan to become the world’s second economy, 2012 simply could not match.

China’s long-term evolution has trended steadily if haltingly upward, albeit with violent setbacks along the way, including the descent into the misery of the Great Leap Famine (1958-1962) and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The country’s current path of change, which has brought it more wealth and power than any previous one, finds its origins in Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms, begun in the 1980s and accelerated after the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. This period solidified neoliberalism’s place as a stable option for reform. The Communist Party anointed the enterprise “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” still the core phrase defining modern China. The country’s guiding ideology, however, is probably more in line with Deng’s cruder slogan, “To get rich is glorious.”

The dominant order of Western capitalist democracies, which is still the ultimate judge of China’s economic progress, seems to agree with Deng. It was for this reason that in 2012, they deemed 2030 to be China’s magical marker. Jim O’Neill, head of global asset management at Goldman Sachs, had predicted in 2011 that China’s economy could surpass that of the Unites States by 2027. Perhaps to account for any rounding errors (and give China a reasonable horizon of 20 years), both the World Bank and the National Intelligence Council released reports detailing what China ought to do to become a fully mature global power by the year 2030. The implications, whether intended or not, are clear: 2030 is a deadline for China to profoundly restructure its economy, and if China can focus on achieving this goal, it will as a matter of course institute necessary political and social reforms. It is this complex web of political, social, economic, plain-view, and shadow dimensions to China’s development that Red Rising, Red Eclipse, the first installment of the China Story Yearbook project headed by noted China historian Geremie Barmé, seeks to chronicle. One indicator of the book’s comprehensive success is that the internet version has been banned in Mainland China. 

When people call for economic reform in China, they reserve their lightest criticism for the methods of China’s highly skilled economists. In the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008, China pursued an expansionary monetary policy to ensure that production and investment stayed at high levels despite the fall-off of exports. Some may argue that China overshot its target, encouraging real estate speculation and inefficient infrastructure projects, which may yet lead to a hard landing. Encouraging economic numbers came out in October, with exports, the engine of China’s economy, growing 11.6 percent. In November, this number dropped to 2.9 percent, way off estimates from FactSet and Dow Jones that hovered near 10 percent. The monthly trade surplus had been expected to increase to approximately $26 billion but shrank to $19.6 billion instead. Much of this could be attributed to the fact that demand for exports from Southeast Asia was unusually large in September and October. But as long as shipments to Europe and the US, China’s primary trading partners, remained sluggish, any export growth would be unsustainable.

On the positive side, China’s industrial output in November rose 10.1 percent, though this was due to the government’s heavy investment in the manufacturing sector. Retail sales, a key marker for China as it retools its economy to one focused on consumption instead of exports, increased by 14.9 percent (houghinflation rose 2 percent). The encouraging takeaway from these numbers is that China still has significant ability to monitor the health of its economy through minor technical adjustments in levels of investment, interest rates, money supply and the like.

Most economists would agree, however, that China’s economy has reached the point where growth will plateau unless significant structural reforms are implemented. There is broad consensus that the solution is to reorient the economy to one based on consumer spending. While in office, former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao urged the government to focus on this and the concomitant goals of introducing more competition in the marketplace to challenge state-owned monopolies, thereby increasing consumer welfare, and finding alternatives to investment in real estate and manufacturing as sources of growth.

Though few inside China doubt the importance of these reforms, very little has been done to realize them. The only agents who are able to make meaningful changes are also aiming for promotion within the Communist Party. An ambitious official risks his chances of moving up the party’s ladder by pursuing long-term growth strategies that require producing unimpressive growth numbers in the short term. There is virtually no personal upside to pushing vastly different economic policies for anyone with a political future.

Political reality hinders the fulfillment of economic dreams in other ways as well. It did not take long for the costs of breakneck growth to manifest themselves. With income inequality and destruction of the environment and property at the forefront of most Chinese minds, the Communist Party, obsessed with maintaining stability and fortifying its legitimacy, has tried to buy itself as much time as possible to address these issues. Unlike economic stagnation, socioeconomic problems are not tracked on a regular basis but can lead to even more explosive consequences if left unaddressed. It turns out, according to a recent study by Gan Li, professor at Texas A&M University, that China’s urban unemployment rate and Gini coefficient are both significantly higher than what the Chinese government has reported them to be, with the latter at a level that threatens social unrest.

Strip an economic problem in China down to its roots and one finds its political origins. When picking a guiding economic philosophy, the first question is whether to sacrifice equality for growth or vice versa. The Chinese New Left believes that despite China’s pursuit of growth, equality should take precedence, both as a matter of principle and ideological coherence for a country that purports to be socialist and a ruling party that calls itself communist. As sensible as that sounds, Zhang Weiying, one of China’s staunchest Thatcherites, made a passionate case for neoliberalism as the true protector of fundamental rights in a speech featured in the European Council on Foreign Relations’ China 3.0, published earlier this year. He explained:

Our economy is still built on privilege rather than on rights and lacks the three elements of a market economy: freedom, property rights, and entrepreneurship […] Only when we respect individual rights and everyone earns income by creating value for others can we become people with morality […] When the government controls too many resources, as in China today, many entrepreneurs are easily directed to rent-seeking rather than creating value for consumers.

In other words, the free marketplace, with its strong sense of private ownership and competition, is the only impartial arbitrator of how much value someone contributes to society. If the government maintains a monopoly on this role, economic actors will act on perverse incentives to game a system rather than create true wealth. The result is that while some of the poor may get poorer, society as a whole would theoretically be better off.

Even for countries that never knew an economic system other than capitalism, the benefits of that tradeoff are hard to appreciate. In the last few years, the central government has rolled out a steady stream of initiatives to develop the poorer inland areas of China and hasten urbanization. Red Rising, Red Eclipse suggests that while income inequality between China’s urban and rural areas is a significant problem, inequality within China’s urban areas and the drying up of the surplus rural labor pool are potentially even more worrisome.

Bo Xilai, his plans for the top office in China scuttled in 2007 by demotion to Party Secretary of Chongqing, a populous municipality in central China, decided to take matters into his own hands decisively and publicly. His “Sing Red, Strike Black” campaign sought to revive a sense of pride and identity in Communist red culture while cleaning out Chongqing’s powerful gangs. Fiscal spending in Chongqing skyrocketed as Bo heavily invested in infrastructure, public housing and other social projects. Development of a collective ownership system for farmland further solidified Bo’s credentials as a populist leader fighting against the capitalist turmoil of the last three decades while still lifting millions out of poverty.

Many Chinese, even those outside Chongqing, were quite impressed by Bo’s accomplishments and vision. Those of a more liberal persuasion, however, were absolutely horrified by Bo’s methods. The violence and lawlessness of his anticorruption campaigns, the jailing of lawyers and significant interference in criminal cases and the glorification of a fervently red, chaotic and totalitarian period in China’s past earned Bo many detractors. But it was his active courting of the media and open ambition in a political system that rewards low profile consensus builders that hardened the resolve of his enemies. That Bo’s closest ally ultimately perpetrated his spectacular fall from grace speaks to the unnaturalness of Bo’s administration in Chongqing — and of the political game at the highest echelons of power in China.

There are two main factions that determine the makeup of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body: the Communist Youth League alumni, headed by Hu Jintao, China’s outgoing President, and the Shanghai coalition led by Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor. Membership in either faction is not determined by ideology so much as patronage relations established over long careers in the Communist Party. Jiang’s faction has the lion share of the princelings, children of prominent officials in the early years of the People’s Republic of China who, in many cases, grew up together. Because princelings each have considerable individual power, they often struggle against each other for influence and promotion, at times completely outside the context of factional politics. Such was the case with Bo, whose father is Bo Yibo, a revolutionary hero and part of Chairman Mao’s inner circle.

The opacity of Zhongnanhai, China’s central leadership compound, prevents outsiders (and sometimes insiders) from knowing how political intrigue plays out, but observers can piece together the following: Hu grew increasingly uncomfortable with Bo’s brash, gunslinging style, as evidenced by his aggressive initiatives in Chongqing and his refusal to fall in line with the Communist Party’s quieter and more consensus-based approach. It did not help that Jiang favored Bo, though not to the extent of vigorously advocating his upward promotion in the face of opposition. Xi Jinping, the current Secretary General of the Communist Party and incoming President, also a princeling, may not have perceived Bo as a legitimate threat to his position. However, he knew that if Bo made it to the Politburo Standing Committee in this year’s leadership transition, he would have to battle the charismatic Bo for influence. Party unity, which the Community Party believes is paramount to keeping the Chinese people’s confidence and maintaining power, would constantly be strained by Bo’s ambition.

A solution presented itself in Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who was in charge of carrying out Bo Xilai’s “Strike Black” campaign. Hu’s associates began to investigate Wang for corruption. Wang asked Bo to protect him, but Bo refused. In yet another twist, Wang had been investigating the death of a Neil Heywood, a British businessman with long ties to the Bo family. After finding evidence that Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, had been involved, Wang confronted Bo, which allegedly led to a physical altercation between the former allies. His transfer to another department and a demotion confirmed that Wang had fallen out of Bo’s good graces.

On February 6, Wang fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, next to Chongqing, seeking asylum. After spending the night there, he was persuaded to leave with the security forces from Beijing that had surrounded the consulate while he was inside. Chongqing’s government then released a statement that Wang was exhausted from overwork and receiving “vacation-style treatment,” a phrase that was immediately lampooned on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social network. On March 14, Bo Xilai held a characteristically confident press conference at the National People’s Congress dismissing rumors of trouble in his administration and accusing his enemies of trying to smear him.

The next day, on the Ides of March, Bo Xilai was dismissed as party secretary of Chongqing. In early April, the Communist Party announced that Bo was being stripped of his remaining positions, including his membership in the Politburo, and that his wife and one of her aides were being investigated in connection with Heywood’s death. Gu was found guilty of his murder on August 20 and given a suspended death sentence, which will likely mean a little over a decade in prison. About a month later, Wang was sentenced to 15 years in prison for defection, abuse of power and receiving bribes. The leniency shown to him suggests that he has given over valuable information that the authorities may use against other targets for prosecution, including Bo. On September 28, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, announced that Bo had been expelled from the Communist Party and would be brought to trial for a litany of crimes such as abuse of power, corruption and adultery (Bo allegedly had over 100 mistresses).

The last time an upheaval of this magnitude took place was right after the June 4 Massacre near Tiananmen Square, when Zhongnanhai moved swiftly to purge those sympathetic to the students’ causes. That it took China’s leadership months this time to decide Bo should be prosecuted speaks to the strength of the infighting among the party’s political factions and Bo’s grassroots popularity. Bo may not have had friends, but he proved to be a useful bargaining chip between political opponents. And while the Communist Party does not need to worry about any sort of direct referendum on their power, they recognize the importance of being sensitive to popular sentiment lest they be deemed unfit to govern.

It remains to be seen whether these fault lines will reopen once Bo is handed a verdict. Though Bo’s fall was a victory for Hu, Jiang may have had the last laugh. Hu was expected, like Jiang, to retain his position as Chairman of the Central Military Commission for a short period of time after stepping down as General Secretary of the Communist Party and president. When Hu gave up all his positions in one fell swoop at the 18th National Party Congress in November, observers began to wonder.

His reversal of fortune arrived on March 18, just days after Bo was sacked, when a black Ferrari speeding along Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road spun out of control, hit a railing and cracked in two. The driver, a man, was immediately killed, and the two women with him sustained heavy injuries. One later died in a hospital. For months, netizens on Weibo speculated as to the identity of the driver and his companions as the censors suppressed all mention of the incidents. In the end, it became clear that the driver was Ling Gu, the son of Ling Jihua, Hu’s closest protégé and director of the party’s General Office, who had hidden his offspring’s death not simply from the public, which would have been unremarkable, but from the Chinese leadership as well. According to the New York Times, not even after he demoted Ling Jihua in September could Hu recover from this blow to his administration.

When Red Rising, Red Eclipse came out in August, I was a bit puzzled by the timing. Why had Barmé and company not waited until after the 18th National Party Congress in November when the leadership transition, arguably the most important event of the year and the last decade, would take place? November came and went and many pronouncements were made about China’s current status and where it should go next. It has since become clear that the downfall of Bo Xilai was by far more instructive than the National Party Congress and its aftermath about the most pressing political and social issues China currently faces.

First and foremost, the saga revealed the fragility of China’s closely orchestrated handovers of power. The transition from Hu to Xi is only the second one in the PRC’s history that occurred with little incident. In the first instance, Deng Xiaoping prearranged Hu’s rise to the top as Jiang’s successor. This time, there was no such revered party elder to name China’s future leaders. Xi and his colleagues on the Poliburo Standing Committee emerged after fierce backroom horse trading. The end result was that Jiang placed four men from his camp on the Standing Committee. Hu, even from his position as President and General Secretary, could only secure a spot for two of his.

What the Chinese leadership feared about the selection process was that the public would come to know the deep divisions within the party and lose faith in the party’s internal discipline, and therefore its ability to exert authority over those outside the party. Indeed, censors and party media worked overtime soon after Bo was dismissed as Party Secretary of Chongqing because increased security in Beijing led to rumors that Zhou Yongkang, one of Bo’s few supporters, was planning a coup. Six people were arrested and 16 websites shut down for spreading such rumors. Although the Communist Party has considered instability to be the greatest danger to the Chinese polity and way of life since Tiananmen, it does not yet grasp that it has been practically institutionalizing instability within the party ranks. The main concern coming out of the National Party Congress should not be the political process that has already occurred, but that there is no clear way in which it can be made less uncertain and factious in the future.

For if there is one main challenge to the success and cleanliness of the Communist Party’s new initiative to curb rampant corruption among officials, it is that after every piece of investigative journalism, arrest and verdict, people wonder whether true justice is being carried out or whether those in advantageous positions are merely settling political scores. Such was the case when Bo’s family wealth, long an object of suspicion, was revealed to be in the hundreds of millions. He was not alone: The New York Times reported in late October that Wen Jiabao’s family controls $2.7 billion in assets and Bloomberg found hundreds of millions under the Xi family name. As soon as the stories hit, many in China questioned whether Bo’s supporters were leaking dirt on Wen’s family to exact revenge or Hu’s faction was seeking to discredit the legitimacy of a princeling who was not Hu’s first choice of successor. Both Western publications have denied using any sources other than public company filings. In neither case was wrongdoing by the officials themselves found, but the magnitude of the wealth underscores the myriad opportunities for those with connections to power.

That new Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, whose expertise is in the economy and financial institutions, was named the head of anticorruption efforts strongly suggests that the central government is no longer only interested in nabbing bribe-takers at the local level and making examples of them. (Although the swift removal of officials involved in a slew of sex scandals in early December, some involving mistresses as a form of bribery, shows the government is still quite interested in the easy cases.) As is true for Wen and Xi’s families, the bulk of corruption in China is hidden in complex webs of shell entities that are legally independent of one another and therefore very difficult to piece together. The government now intends to trace the assets of these entities back to their owners.

Under Wang Qishan, the Discipline Inspection Commission will be given wider latitude to carry out both enforcement and judicial functions. Top civil rights lawyers in Beijing are already warning of the possible perverse effects of this concentration in power. Chen Youxi said at a seminar in Beijing shortly after the 18th National Party Congress ended that, “The more powerful the Discipline Inspection Commission has become, the more serious corruption has become, because if you depend on secretively fighting corruption, you only encourage more corruption.” Pu Zhiqiang echoed similar concerns with self-dealing by officials in picking which officials would be prosecuted: “If they punished everyone, no matter who they are, then the Communist Party would have collapsed a long time ago.” Given the urgency of the fight against corruption, the Communist Party is not eager to wait for equal justice under the law. China’s leadership does recognize the theoretical importance of the rule of law to China’s maturity as a modern society but only to the extent that establishes order more quickly than the party’s current methods. In cases where an independent judicial process would be messier and longer than the intraparty disciplinary system without presenting obvious additional benefits (as is the case with corruption where the official is almost certainly guilty) the party deems the rule of law unnecessary.

Perhaps the greatest impact of Bo’s fall from power is the exile of the Chongqing model. Up until his dismissal from the top post in Chongqing, China watchers believed the most important struggle leading up to the 18th National Party Congress was that between Bo and his Chongqing model of governance and Wang Yang, Party Secretary of Guangdong, China’s wealthiest and most liberal province, and his Guangdong model. As their political affiliations would suggest, the Chongqing model espouses a strong central government, a state-driven economy and mitigating economic inequality through an aggressive campaign of public projects. The Guangdong model, on the other hand, seeks to disseminate power from the center to smaller units of government to allow greater autonomy in decision-making. It also aspires to encourage private enterprise and the development of civil society.

Even though Bo was not dismissed for ideological reasons, the Chongqing model is too closely associated with him to have much credence with the central government. Still, it enjoys a significant number of subscribers in the Communist Party and its popularity is at least partially responsible for Zhongnanhai’s cautious approach to Bo’s prosecution.

Nevertheless, Wang Hui, a prominent and controversial Chinese public intellectual associated with the New Left, predicted in a recent essay for China 3.0 that just as Tiananmen ushered in an era of neoliberal policies after those who opposed them were crushed, Bo’s demise will pave the way for the primacy of economic policies associated with the so-called Guangdong model that, according to its critics, is insensitive to issues of social justice and focuses only on development. The analogy is plausible but imperfect because the historical contexts are so different. When Deng toured the southern provinces in 1992 to announce widespread market-oriented reforms, China was embarking on a grand experiment. Though guided by Western capitalism, the spirit of China’s marketization was all pragmatism. Now that China is no longer a blank slate and no modern nation-state exists that can serve as a model for China’s autocratic market economy, the time for experimentation is largely over. The pressures of governance and global leadership dictate that China be at once even more reactive and responsive than it was in Deng’s era as well as more creative. China’s government knows that without a focused vision of the country’s future, it will be directionless and ineffectual in pursuing its short-term goals. Rejection of the Chongqing model is therefore not due to mere changes in political fortune. It is a commitment to an alternate identity.

Xi has recognized the necessity of shifting perspectives. Introducing the Politburo Standing Committee on November 16, he left out the abstract ideological buzzwords that historically made up the bulk of official speeches and spoke plainly:

Our responsibility now is to rally and lead the entire Party and the people of all ethnic groups in China in taking the baton passed on to us by history, and in making continued efforts to achieve the great renewal of the Chinese nation, make the Chinese nation stand rock-firm in the family of nations, and make an even greater contribution to mankind.

Observers picked up on the theme of renewal, which Xi repeated during a visit to an exhibition in Beijing on November 29. He stated, "Realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history." After much discussion, many prominent China watchers now agree that Xi’s conception of renewal involves a combination of nationalism and shoring up domestic strength through bold reform.

In terms of specific initiatives, a good place to start looking for clues is the World Bank’s Report on China in 2030. With a few notable exceptions, China’s leaders, including Premier Li Keqiang, by and large agree with the report’s recommendations. On the economic front, the World Bank would like to see China break the monopolies of its state-owned enterprises and make the legal and political infrastructure much more predictable and friendlier to private enterprise, competition and innovation that goes beyond production processes and introduces new products and ideas to the world. China also needs to continue its efforts to improve environmental protection through market-based incentives for companies and the population to “go green.” The World Bank has come a long way since the heyday of the Washington Consensus, so it readily acknowledges that China must not further unleash its economy without establishing social safety nets and seeking new sources of government revenues for future necessary expenditures. Finally, China must become a more active participant in the global community.

Perhaps the reason why the report was largely uncontroversial in China is that it did not directly address the country’s most sensitive political issues: corruption and the increasing authority of the party in bureaucratic matters, both of which stem in part from the lack of a strong independent judiciary and democracy beyond the village level. Considering the scope of the reforms these problems require, it may be frustrating, though not at all surprising, that China’s leadership did not signal any serious intent to institute any reforms until Xi Jinping toured the southern provinces, recalling Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992, after which China began its new path in earnest.

Many of the most powerful families in China, with extensive background in the Communist Party, regularly hold salons to discuss which reforms should be instituted. Each party faction and their supporting academics have their own views to add. And Beijing is increasingly paying attention to national mood as it is reflected by netizens. In a political system built on consensus, arriving at agreement between the multitude of opinions is almost as daunting as welcoming any short-term instability resulting from the reforms themselves. That the current officials in the village of Wukan, who were elected after a popular uprising at the end of last year ousted their predecessors, have not addressed the villagers’ grievances reinforces the more conservative instincts of China’s political leaders.

In such circumstances, China would be well served by a guiding model. But the models that currently exist, including the Beijing Consensus, are at the trough of their efficacy. Also, China’s political and economic systems and, more importantly, its aspirations as a nation have no analogue. Curiously, in response to both of these difficulties, China’s leadership has floated Singapore as a viable model. Xi has reportedly overseen a team that examines Singapore’s system of governance, which allows for greater economic freedom and diversity of political opinions under strict one-party rule. Xi even met with Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, at Beidaihe, the summer retreat and bargaining ground for China’s top leaders, in 2010. The two discussed how to institute a more flexible authoritarian government in China. Shortly thereafter, Xi and Jiang agreed that Singapore should guide the way for political and economic reform in China.

Bold reform happens slowly in China, so the fact that China is not any more like Singapore two years on should not be evidence that Xi and Jiang’s enthusiasm has waned. However, their choice of Singapore is not an encouraging sign that their reform initiatives will be driven by a desire to better serve the Chinese people. Ever since such comparisons could be made, China has asserted that its situation is unique, that along all dimensions, whether they be political, historical, demographic, or what have you, it was too different from other countries to borrow or even learn from characteristics of their governance. How is it that the first time China deigns to allow an exception, it anoints Singapore, a city-state sometimes dubbed by Western tourists as Asia 101? The affinity China’s leadership feels with Singapore is an implicit admission that it wants to cement the popularity of an autocratic system, which Singapore has successfully done, above all else. If Zhongnanhai were trying to learn how to best govern a large, complex society, it would frankly have better luck with Western democracies.

The Communist Party’s preoccupation with maintaining power and the resulting perverse incentives for reform are a significant point of concern for Chinese intellectuals across a wide political spectrum. Ma Jun, a political science professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in the liberal bastion of Guangdong, believes that China will be an electoral democracy in the long-term. Pan Wei, a professor at Beijing University and one of the most prominent neoconservatives in China, holds that the Chinese government makes all the right moves on macro issues. Wang Hui, a professor at Tsinghua University and the Chinese New Left’s leading intellectual, places his faith in the central government as the ultimate protector of equality and justice in China. All three, however, also believe to varying degrees that the party is rotted to the core. In essays published this year in China 3.0, they advocate increased participation at the grassroots level through civil society and the strengthening of community ties.

Geremie Barmé is betting that this increased sense of citizenship among the Chinese people will be the big story in 2013. This trend arose by dint of the average Chinese person’s heightened awareness of political matters now that day-to-day concerns about survival are much less prevalent. It has accelerated in the last couple of years due to the role of the internet as a public forum for discussion of national issues. As Red Rising, Red Eclipse recognizes, though online voices represent the opinions of a specific strip of Chinese society (web-savvy, generally educated, and moderately well-off), they are attracting sufficient attention from the Chinese government to be considered an official account of the goings-on in China. For all these reasons, Barmé let slip that the title of the China Story Yearbook for 2013 will be Civilizing China.

The widespread worry about this process is that it will inevitably lead to democracy, and if China democratizes too quickly, then it will only have a new autocracy and needless human suffering to show for it. But even for this favorite argument for the status quo, the underlying assumption is that China will eventually democratize. It will be interesting to see how China’s liberals and moderates temper their hand given the promise of that end point. As for the Chinese nation as a whole, how does it make sure that in preventing its gaze from fixing on that end point, it nevertheless keeps in mind that it exists?

In this sense, the object of Xi’s project of renewal is not simply increasing the welfare of the Chinese people but determining how best to secure the story of modern China’s place in history. As notable as it was for Xi to intone the word “renewal” several times in the first few days of his administration, Xi just as strongly emphasized the need to “make the Chinese nation stand rock-firm in the family of nations, and make an even greater contribution to mankind.” Despite the internationalist tone of the words, the intent is probably much more nationalist. Xi ultimately wants history to respect modern China for its strength.

The rub is that a nation whose primary desire is power has sought the most general but also the most stringent metric upon which its success can be measured because its clear-cut nature makes it quite sensitive. If self-strengthening is truly China’s primary aim, then its grand experiment is truly over. This is not to say that bold reforms are now impossible, but China has set an unforgiving goal for itself.

It certainly has tried to assert its strength this year in the row with Japan over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea that the Japanese refer to as the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands. China has also promulgated rules allowing police in Hainan, a southern province in China, to accost foreign vessels in the South China Sea. While China continues to claim that it is merely protecting its territorial integrity, it cannot be unaware that its maneuvers are increasing the United States’ power in Asia. The tension between the US and China further deepened in early October when the House Intelligence Committee warned American companies that China could use products from ZTE and Huawei, two global electronics powerhouses, for espionage purposes.

In all likelihood, the West’s antipathy does not bother China’s leadership. When nationalist sentiment is widespread and fervent, the Chinese people are distracted from China’s domestic problems. While this is certainly a convenient tool for the central government to deploy, nationalist rhetoric will only turn out to hinder Xi Jinping’s efforts to renew the nation. Pitting China against the West inevitably means framing China’s identity and development in Western terms as the country tries to gain the upper hand in the comparison.

In addition, the National Intelligence Council and Jim O’Neill should not be so quick to declare the onset of a multi-polar world, even if the notion of a club of Western democracies dominating the global economy and governance models is antiquated. China has shown that the desire to attain prominence does not also mean a desire to lead. Though it does not consider itself like any member of the G8, it would not sniff at an invitation to formally join. Nevertheless, if his rhetoric about renewal were sincere, Xi would probably prefer that China be less beholden to the international global order while cultivating a more organic uniqueness.

Indeed, China’s campaign in the last few years to increase its soft power is as much a desire to find itself as it is an acknowledgment that international relationships based on strength and shared wealth alone were insufficient. The term “cultural soft power” made its debut in the 2007 political report at the 17th National Party Congress. Hu, president at the time, introduced this new political catchphrase but did not offer many specifics. On January 1, 2012, Hu published an essay in the Communist Party journal Seeking Truth that clarified his meaning:

We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.

He added in his political report to the 18th National Party Congress that China should aim to build “strong socialist cultural nation.” According to David Bandurski for the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, “The idea is that China has its own ‘cultural subjectivity’ — something like its own cultural parallel universe.”

This perspective may appear to complement the more nationalistic one, but again, it in truth does not. Perhaps China ought to take a page from one of its most celebrated cultural triumphs on the international stage to date. In Stockholm, Sweden, Mo Yan, the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, declared by way of parable his belief in the importance of the individual — that one should be clear and steadfast in his identity and that society should not trample on this endeavor.

Should China continue to define itself by its relation to the West, it will fail to understand itself. On the one hand, no one should begrudge China’s shadowboxing with what it believes to be the jealous guardians of Western primacy for its place in history. However, for China to fixate on this long-term perspective, it invites the threat of insignificance at every turn, year in and year out seeing its accomplishments dwarfed by lofty, outward-facing goals, and arriving at its desired future in a class of one but as puzzling and coreless then as it is now. Let’s grant that China wins the races for global domination. As for its contribution to mankind and a place in history, its own and the world’s, commensurate with its impact, China may look back from 2030 and find that it has offered very little fuel for further interesting prognoses about its future.