The term Chinese Dream has been used several times by President Xi Jinping since the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress in November 2012. The term has become a major focus of discussion in China. The paper below was given as a keynote speech at a major conference held in Shanghai last December.

The Chinese Dream is a new departure – both as a political idea and slogan. It is, for one thing, immediately accessible and, as a result, populist. Everyone knows about dreams, we all have them, whether in our sub-conscious or conscious state. Dreams belong to everyone. There is also a sense of freedom about dreams. When we dream we are not constrained by material circumstance or the real world, on the contrary we are allowed to escape from those kind of restraints. Dreams empower: they are highly personal, each and every one of us their author. The evocation of the word dream summons us all to be bold, to imagine the world not as it is but as it might be, how we would like it to be.

The term Chinese Dream is of the present: its moment has arrived. It would not have been appropriate in 1978. That was not the nature of the time. The term Chinese Dream urges the Chinese to move on, to think anew and afresh, to turn over a new page, to begin a new chapter. The Chinese Dream announces the beginning of something new but also the end of something: the end of the era of Deng Xiaoping.

The overriding priorities of the Deng era were economic growth and the reduction in poverty. Everything was to be subordinated to these objectives. China sought to keep a low profile and avoid unnecessary conflicts with other nations for the greater cause of economic growth. Foreign policy was tailored to domestic imperatives. The country pursued a friendly relationship with the United States because the latter was seen as the key to China’s access to the international system and global markets. The Deng era required extraordinary self-discipline and single-mindedness as well as huge effort. The escape from poverty demands something akin to tunnel vision on the part of leaders and the people alike. The great success of the Deng era means that China is now in a very different place from where it was over three decades ago. It can now begin to dream. Dreaming in 1978 was a luxury it could not afford.

The Deng era entailed a relatively simple economic strategy: the shift from the countryside to the cities, labour intensive manufacturing, an export-orientated economy and huge levels of investment; and social measures such as the one-child policy which could assist the country’s economic priorities. It would be wrong to say that these policies are now exhausted – they are still pertinent for important swathes of the Chinese economy – but they are now of rapidly declining efficacy and relevance for the economy as a whole. The statement approved by the Third Plenum projects an economy which is unrecognisable compared with 1978, proposes a very different kind of economic strategy, and embraces a far more diverse set of economic objectives.

There are two features of the Third Plenum statement that are particularly striking. First it is a radical – and highly coherent – document. It imbued with the belief that China has come to the end of one stage in its development and must now embark on a new one. The new strategy is what the statement is about. Second, the statement is characterised by a huge sense of confidence about both the necessity of the shift and the leadership’s ability to achieve it. It combines a vision of the future with a strong practicality: the tried and tested methods of trial and error will be continued.

The shift from the Deng era to what, in shorthand, I will call the Xi era, is not simply economic , even if that has been the dominant discourse of the reform era hitherto and in large measure – though I suspect less and less in the future – still is. The Deng model was multi-dimensional in character: the export-orientated and labour-intensive economic policy, the one-child policy, a stripped-down foreign policy, a reformed and repurposed state, and so on. But the economic priorities that confronted the country necessarily shaped and subordinated more or less everything else. The Xi model is similarly multi-dimensional but in a different and more complex way. The necessary economic changes, of course, are foregrounded: a shift in emphasis to consumption rather than exports, value-added production, the service sector, a growing financial sector and an increasingly important role for the renminbi. Alongside these, however, we are seeing the beginning of the end of the one-child policy, the reform of the hukou system, a qualitative shift towards environmental priorities, a huge extension in social security, and a properly-funded and comprehensive health service. By 2020 China is envisaged as being a moderately prosperous country. By the middle of the century, it is projected that the Chinese Dream will have been realised. The dream is conceived not just in economic terms, in the quest for prosperity, but like all dreams it is about life in its broadest sense. When you are poor, economics is everything; as you grow richer, then other considerations and needs assume a far more important role. The confidence that these ambitions express is striking, especially for a leadership, culture and country that is marked by its caution and sobriety.

The Chinese dream, while emphasising the importance of the nation and its unity, suggests a different kind of relationship between the state and society. And manifestly empowers the individual as the individual is also encouraged to dream about not just the country’s future but their own futures. We can already see this amongst the young with their sense of optimism and possibility regarding the future. The Chinese will, over the periods imagined in the Plenum statement, go through a huge transformation in countless different ways: a different kind of Chinese individual, more cosmopolitan, more global, more empathetic, more confident, more broad-minded, more environmentally aware, will emerge. But the Chinese Dream is, nonetheless, above all a dream about China, about the nation and its metamorphosis.

The Chinese Dream, as envisaged by Xi Jinping, is seen as realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and, as such, he argues, is the greatest dream in the country’s modern history. What does this mean? One aspect is clearly the economic, political, cultural and social transformation of the country. But ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ is not simply a national phenomenon.  The great achievements of China in earlier dynasties such as the Tang and the Song are recognised as such because by international standards they were so advanced for their time. So ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’, home to a fifth of the world’s population, must also and equally be seen as an international phenomenon, even more so in a globalised age, which will have profound global effects and consequences. ‘The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ will transform China’s relationship with the world and this is an integral part of the Chinese Dream. Indeed, this is one of the boldest elements of the Chinese Dream.

Let us consider this aspect of the Chinese Dream in the context of recent Chinese history. A central characteristic of the Deng era, namely the period from 1978 to 2013, has been an overwhelming preoccupation with the present. Under the pressures of modernisation and the escape from poverty, the Chinese mind was trained and tutored to have a narrow focus – not to live in the past or dream of a different future but to overwhelmingly concentrate on the present. History had to take a backseat – unusually in China – because of the irresistible demands of the present. When I was writing my book between 2005 and 2008 I was struck by how little thought had been given to thinking of China’s future by reference to the country’s history. The exigencies of the present made this a luxury which the country could ill-afford. A sure sign that the Deng era is drawing to a close is that Xi now feels that the moment has arrived when China can once more address its historical landscape, that an historical perspective is once more an integral part of current thinking, that the present should be seen in the context of China’s history – not just post-1949 history but Chinese history over a much longer period.

The crucial question here is the turning point at the end of the nineteenth century as China’s precipitous decline came to undermine both the country’s domestic integrity and international position. The late American historian Lucian Pye observed that ‘China is a civilization pretending to be a nation-state,’ obliged by its own weakness at the end of the nineteenth century to adapt to the European norms of the international system. China, however, is no longer weak: on the contrary, with each passing day it is becoming stronger; it is palpably on the rise, its mood changing from one of quiescence, of keeping its head down, to a growing sense of confidence and expansiveness. The era that Pye describes is finally coming to an end. China is far from being able to express itself in a concrete form regarding Pye’s questions but it can, after over a century in which its long decline and retreat relegated them to the history books, now begin to explore them. They are once more on the agenda. The two questions raised – or at least hinted at – by Pye are as follows. First, what does it mean to be a civilization-state rather than a nation-state; and second, what are the implications if China is no longer required by its own weakness to adapt to the western-designed international system but could potentially seek to modify and shape it according to its own needs, character and history.

These are questions, of course, for which no one yet has the answer. One thing, though, is abundantly clear. China’s continuing rise will mean a huge change in the international landscape, the greatest since the modern era was ushered in by Britain’s Industrial Revolution. In such circumstances it is inconceivable that the international system as we know it today will survive. It will be transformed in countless different ways. There is already an incipient recognition that change is inevitable. However, present discussions about the future of the international system – or, to put it another way, the shape of the global polity and its various component parts, including nation-states – tend to be reduced to and take the form of an institutional debate about the future of the IMF and the World Bank. But this is to get lost in the detail, to fail to recognise the big picture and thereby grasp the much wider issues at stake. It reflects a fundamental inability to think outside the terms of the present international system, a failure to imagine something fundamentally different, an incapacity to appreciate what will be a huge paradigm shift. China’s rise requires exactly that kind of thinking. Just what the world might look like when it is no longer shaped by the legacy of Western dominance, representing, as it does, less than 15% of the world’s population, and instead is shaped by what we now know as the developing world representing 85% of the world’s population, with China by far the most important single player, requires a huge leap of imagination.  It is very unlikely to bear much similarity to the world as we now know it. Even the dominance of the nation-state system as we now know it could well be called into question. It is not only China, as a civilization-state, that fits uneasily with the old European norms of the nation-state. Is this not also true in various ways of many other non-western countries such as India, Iran, Turkey and Nigeria? The former Western colonies had little option but to adopt the nation-state form. But imagine a world in which China, as a civilization-state, is the dominant influence. This could well be the catalyst, in a post-Western world, for a much greater diversity in the nature of state forms.

In my book, I argue that the way China will view its future relationship with the world and, indeed, how it comes to see itself in its modern incarnation, is bound to be strongly influenced by its own history: this is true in some measure with all countries, of course, but in the case of China especially so. No country is as intimate with, or as influenced by, its own history as China. The discourse of the Chinese Dream will allow and encourage the Chinese to explore in a new way the relationship between the country’s history and its future. History, unlike in the Deng era, will once more become extremely important in Chinese discussions about the future. But history is not the only player. China’s future will be shaped by its developing modernity as well as by its history. The two are very different. Such is the extraordinary pace and dynamism of China’s modernity that China is going through a process of constant reinvention. A key example of this is Chinese culture. Fundamental as it is to the country’s sense of what it is and who the Chinese are, traditional Chinese culture is itself now subject to a profound process of reinvention. Meanwhile, of course, the world has changed vastly compared with what it was a century or more ago. It is not unreasonable to argue that China’s thinking about East Asia will be influenced by the experience of the tributary system, but it would be naïve to suggest that any future East Asian order will mirror the tributary system: the key question is in what ways that historical experience might shape East Asia and in what ways it will not.

This brings me to my final point. There is a growing confidence about the way in which China sees the future and its own place within it. There are two underlying reasons for this. The first reason is China’s own transformation. Its success has imbued the country and its leadership with a strong sense of self-assurance and self-belief; and it has also invested them with a strong attachment and commitment to the importance and virtue of change. The second reason involves a much broader canvas, namely a wider global transformation. This can be summarised as follows. The global centre of gravity is shifting from the developed world, where a small minority live, to the developing world, home to the great majority of the world’s population. Large numbers of countries are now in the process of modernisation. This is the key trend of our time. China, furthermore, is in the process of establishing itself as the key agency and catalyst for their development. From Africa and Latin America to South East Asia and Central Asia, it is playing an increasingly important role. Or, to put it another way, in the defining trend of our time, China occupies a key strategic position. Its own development requires imports from many developing countries, while the latter need the Chinese market as a source of demand for their goods. Increasingly they also require Chinese lending and inward investment. In other words, there is a growing relationship of interdependence, hence the Chinese emphasis on mutual interests, common development and a win-win relationship. China has become the engine of transformation of the developing world. At the same time it is also a microcosm of what can be achieved by other developing countries. As a developed country, it is impossible for the United States to play this kind of role. It is, in this context, on the wrong side of history. While it seeks to shore up the existing international system, the developing world will lie at the heart of a new global order which will eventually replace it.

The Chinese Dream is thus not confined to China. It is also about China’s role in the transformation of the developing world and, in the process, the transformation of the world. The belief that China’s rise is aligned with this wider global transformation is hugely empowering. It is not surprising that China is feeling increasingly confident. It would appear that history is on China’s side: that China is on the side of change; and that change is on China’s side. A powerful combination.