CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – Ruling elites almost everywhere – whether in democracies or in authoritarian regimes – believe that clever sloganeering can inspire their people and legitimize their power. There are, of course, crucial differences. In functioning democracies, government leaders can be held accountable for their promises: the press can scrutinize their policies, opposition parties are motivated to show that the party in power lies and cheats. As a result, incumbents are frequently forced to carry out at least some of their promises.
Autocratic rulers, by contrast, face no such pressures. Press censorship, repression of dissent, and the absence of organized opposition allow rulers the luxury of promising whatever they want, with no political consequences for failing to deliver. The result is government of the sloganeers, by the sloganeers, and for the sloganeers.
China appears to have perfected this form of government over the last decade. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in response to rising public demand for social justice, has devised numerous slogans, such as “governing for the people,” “building a harmonious society,” “balanced development,” “scientific development,” and so on.
Whenever the top leadership in Beijing uttered such slogans, they became the rallying cry of the bureaucracy. The party’s massive propaganda machine went into overdrive and blanketed the country with a publicity blitz that would make the most extravagant Madison Avenue advertising campaign look like child’s play.
But government by slogan, whether in China or in other autocracies, seldom achieves its declared goals. In the last decade, GDP growth soared, but most indices of social justice, governance performance, and public welfare deteriorated. Macroeconomic imbalances worsened as economic growth became excessively dependent on investment and exports. Inequality worsened. Official corruption escalated. Social mobility declined. Environmental degradation reached a crisis point.
Today, it is the responsibility of China’s new leadership, headed by President Xi Jinping, to avert another decade of missed opportunities. Without missing a beat, Xi, like his predecessors, rolled out a new slogan to inspire popular confidence in his leadership. As a catchphrase for his administration’s objective, “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation” is bit long, but it has lately morphed into the simpler “China Dream.”
The substance of the China Dream remains difficult to determine. When Xi first unveiled his slogan after being selected as the CCP’s new general secretary, he defined it in simple, accessible, but nonetheless generic terms: The “Chinese people dream of living the same good life as all other people in the world.”
Xi has said little about the China Dream since – and his silence has caused considerable trouble. China’s ever-zealous propaganda officials, evidently fearful of not demonstrating sufficient loyalty and respect for the new party chief, quickly hijacked the slogan; the China Dream has replaced the “China Model” in official political branding. Whatever the new administration does is touted as part of its ambitious effort to make the “China Dream” come true.
Unfortunately, China propagandists, who double as censors, have a perverse ability to discredit anything that they try to brand. The China Dream is no exception. So far, public reaction has ranged from puzzlement to derision. After a decade of government by slogan, the Chinese public wants substance.
This presents Xi with a real challenge. He has risen to the top by winning friends and allies inside the CCP. Now that he is the leader of a dynamic, diverse, and increasingly demanding society, he must gain popular support and confidence to maintain his credibility and become an effective politician.
The first thing that Xi should do is to articulate a clearer, more specific, and inspiring version of the China Dream, and stop letting the CCP’s propaganda officials define it for him. The China Dream may include all of the economic benefits and material comfort that ordinary Chinese desire, but it will not be complete without the human rights and dignity that citizens in civilized societies take for granted.
The second thing that Xi and his colleagues need to do is to follow up with specific policies and actions that can bolster the credibility of their declared goals. Political slogans, however high-sounding, become stale when their purveyors fail to make good on their promises.
Xi may still be enjoying a honeymoon with the Chinese public, but it is likely to be a short one. His predecessors had ten years to carry out real reforms and accomplished little, leaving the Chinese in no mood to endure another decade of government by shibboleth.