China’s new president, Xi Jinping, gave his big inaugural address last week, talking at length about the “Chinese Dream.” He said: “We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
All that talk of ‘great this’ and ‘great that’ should sound familiar to Americans—it’s the same exceptionalism that their leaders espouse during any major national address. Both the American Dream and the Chinese Dream are patriotism without the isolationism—clarion calls for the nation as well as the individual. For America, it’s about holding on (or reasserting) its claim as the world’s foremost nation. For China, it’s about wresting that title away—or at least providing an alternative prototype that other nations can follow.
If China wants to become the world’s foremost country, it’ll mean jettisoning its more isolationist approach to foreign affairs. For 10 years we’ve heard Chinese officials say that they can’t intervene. We’re too poor; we’re still developing. In 2007, then-president Wen Jiabao described China’s economic growth as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” But now that the financial crisis has exposed cracks in the Western capitalist model and China appears destined to one day overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, China can’t stay on the sidelines anymore. It needs to secure its economic interests in every corner of the globe—and that will mean sometimes getting its hands dirty.
And so, I suspect in the near future you’ll see China’s formal renunciation of its policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. That doesn’t mean it’s going to finally engage in all of the crises that the United States has been hoping it would. When I met with Chinese officials recently, I asked: “So the British, the Soviets, and the Americans have had their turn in Afghanistan. Is it time for China’s?” They were unenthusiastic, to put it mildly. Don’t expect more than an economic interest to arise in Beijing. And when China does choose to intervene, don’t expect it to do so in the way that the U.S. is hoping it will. China has its own thoughts on how things should be done.
The greatest hint of what’s to come appeared in China People’s Daily, the news outlet that doubles as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party. “Western universal values have suffocated diversity in the world in modern times,” it wrote before Xi’s speech. China sees its imminent ascension as a way to offer an alternative to Western hegemony: If market capitalism isn’t for you, that’s OK; there’s another way.