Xi Jinping: China Dream a nightmare for others?

THE "China Dream" is a phrase that has appeared in plays and books, but it recently got an airing at the topmost echelon of power when new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping used it to rally the nation.

Making his second speech since taking over as China's top leader last month, Mr Xi outlined what he deemed the greatest dream for China: realising the revival of the Chinese nation.

He said: "Everyone is talking about a China Dream. I believe the revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of the nation since modern times."

"We are at the closest point to the Chinese nation's resurgence than any time in modern history... and I am sure we will accomplish our goal."

Mr Xi's choice of words has sparked a new craze over the phrase China Dream, with netizens rendering their own definitions of "zhongguo meng", such as a corruption-free country.

Many believe the new leader was trying to mobilise domestic support for his agenda of continuing reform and opening up, by inspiring people towards a China Dream - the title of a 1987 play about a Chinese couple dreaming of success in the United States.

"It also serves to galvanise the people's support and rally the public around the new administration's economic and political agenda," said Professor Wang Dong, an international studies expert at Peking University.

But a closer analysis of Mr Xi's speech makes one wonder if there is cause for concern for foreign countries, especially those locked in territorial disputes with China, such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

First, he chose to make the speech at the National Museum, where he and six other members of the apex Politburo Standing Committee had viewed the iconic China's Road To Renaissance exhibition late last month.

Visitors tend to spend at least two hours at the exhibition, which begins with narratives of China as a weak country that suffered humiliating defeats and the loss of sovereign territories to foreign powers around the early 1900s.

It then traces the country's efforts to rise from the ashes, which gained speed after the reforms and opening up under late leader Deng Xiaoping in 1980s.

Given the symbolic setting, the natural fear is that part of Mr Xi's China Dream may include taking a tougher stance towards foreign countries that China perceives to be threatening again to grab its territories. There were hints in his speech when he said: "Looking back at our past, we can see that if we are lagging behind, we will suffer beatings. Only when we advance, then can we be strong."

Also, the phrase "China Dream" evokes memories of a 2010 book by a People's Liberation Army officer, which advocated a speedy strengthening of China's military might or risk being sidelined by the US.

In his Chinese-language book, The China Dream, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu wrote that "as long as China seeks to rise to become world No. 1... then even if China is more capitalist than the US, the US will still be determined to contain it".

"If China in the 21st century cannot become world No. 1, cannot become the top power, then inevitably, it will become a straggler that is cast aside," added Col Liu, who is a professor at the National Defence University.

If Mr Xi was indirectly backing Col Liu's beliefs, it could hint at more aggressive moves by Beijing in dealing with foreign countries in future.

For some, it may have already happened. On the day Mr Xi sketched his idea of the greatest dream for China, news broke that police in southern Hainan province would get new powers to intercept foreign ships in the contested South China Sea.

Though it is unclear whether the new rules taking effect next month would be limited to only Hainan island's territorial waters within 12 nautical miles, the move has given some of its neighbours sleepless nights.

It has also unnerved non-claimant countries such as Singapore, which places great value on regional peace and freedom of navigation.

To be fair, China is not the only claimant state stirring up the waters in the maritime hub lately. Others have taken similar actions.

Also, to be sure, some believe that Mr Xi's China Dream pertains mostly to improving the people's lives through better jobs and better rule of law.

In that sense, it does not differ much in essence from the American Dream, which promises equal and fair opportunities for all, in pursuit of a better life. Or the Singapore dream, which epitomises the prospects of a successful life gained through hard work.

But niggling concerns remain, given that China's new commander-in-chief could fan or yield to more nationalistic sentiments by taking a more hawkish foreign policy stance - particularly if domestic political problems persist.

Said Professor Taylor Fravel, a China expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "Xi's speech suggests that he may be more willing to invoke nationalism, but at this point it is too soon to tell how this will affect China's foreign policies."

After decades of promising a peaceful rise, it would be a shame if Beijing starts to grow its might at an unhealthy pace or flex it aggressively, which could worsen already frayed ties with its neighbours and destabilise the region.

While China and its people are entitled to pursuing their dream after decades of setbacks, it is also in the country's interest to continue to act like a responsible global power by showing sensitivity to others in the region. A dream for China should not become a nightmare for the rest of the world.