China Power

Parsing Xi Jinping’s Words

Analysts are too quick to give international significance to statements the Chinese leader intended for domestic consumption.

One of the striking aspects of Xi Jinping’s first domestic outing in early April at the Boao Forum in Hainan with his full suite of power roles now (Party head, president and head of the military) was the highly abstract way in which he spoke. Attendees of the conference from the head of state level down, and the large number of journalists there, were most eager to hear what he might say about the recently increasingly truculent North Korea. But unlike the Australian Prime Minister, keen to stretch her wings now the country has a seat on the UN Security Council for two years, who explicitly referred to the DPRK, President Xi said nothing direct. His sole offering was a general reference to the need to preserve regional stability.

Initially, this was taken by analysts as a coded warning to the “little brother” in Pyongyang to step back and calm down. But an editorial in the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, by the end of the week seemed to put pay to this idea by forcefully pointing the finger at the United States, saying that it was provoking the DPRK, that it was playing politics in the region and that the onus was now on it to reengage and speak directly to the North Koreans rather than igniting war games around them.

Xi in his speech did refer to the “China Dream,” but in similarly vague language. Is this his gambit to try to capture and inspire the emotions of the Chinese people in ways which his predecessor Hu Jintao with his mechanical, dry talk of “scientific development” signally failed to do? And is the “China Dream” the preparation for a more viscerally nationalistic polity in Beijing, and one that will really start to cause problems both for the neighbors and further afield?

Perhaps we are imputing President Xi with too much ambition and influence too early. He failed to refer directly to the DPRK not because he didn’t want to, but because with the complex affiliations and feelings about this in the Party elite, he simply couldn’t. Speaking ambiguously in this context offers the best protection. And as a domestic move, dishing the Americans will always have more traction than turning on the DPRK – at least publicly.

On the China Dream too, before we get excited by taking this as evidence for an imminent onslaught of Chinese nationalism, we have to remember the domestic context. China Dream sounds bold and ambitious, but in the end, for the people Xi is really talking to, those in his own country, the China Dream is no more than something approaching the lifestyles that people in the West have been enjoying for the last half century. The China Dream in that sense is simply a snappier way of reduplicating the talk in the Hu period of “the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects.”

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All we can really learn from Xi’s talk is that in this period where China is so globally prominent, we have to get sharper at sifting apart the language aimed at domestic issues, and that which is really addressed to the outside world. China still behaves like it is a little surprised, and only slowly getting used to, its new international prominence. Most of the time, it acts like a country turned in on itself. People dream dreams for themselves, however, and rarely on behalf of others. And the dream that Xi has been talking about sounds more like it is focused on people trying to have a better life within, than a country about to embark on expansionist challenges to the U.S. or any other imperium that might surround it.

Kerry Brown is Executive Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Professor of Chinese Politics. He was previously Head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House. He leads the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN) funded by the European Union (