The tradition that the Chinese ruler must also be the fountainhead of society's moral authority dies hard -- in fact, it doesn't
die at all, having been around for a couple of millennia, since the great emperors of the Han married their "hard power" to the
legitimizing social and civil doctrines of the Confucian School. While the formal linkage between ruling house and Confucian canon
was severed in 1905, with the ending of the Imperial Examination system for the recruitment of China's administrative elite, just
about anyone with pretensions to national leadership since the end of the Dynastic era has adopted a rhetoric, not only of ardent
national revival, but of moral instruction. Mao, of course embodied this temporal-cosmic synthesis in the extreme, armed with the
eternal verities of Marxism, to be sure, but also literate in the idioms and formulations of the longer Chinese tradition.
(Actually, one of Deng Xiaoping's unusual attributes was his low profile as Civilizational Leader: "It doesn't matter whether the
cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice" was a perfect, anti-heroic formulation in the aftermath of the of the Charisma
Tempest that was the Mao era, and the intensely practical quality of many of Deng's most famous utterances helped to unleash a
burst of popular energy, mostly in pursuit of material gain, that has continued to this day.)
But by now Mao has been gone for nearly four decades; it is nearly two decades since Deng's death. It's not for me to put thoughts
in Xi Jinping's brain, but surely he has seen for himself, and heard from others, that China's headlong growth since 1978 has
brought not only huge benefits to vast numbers of people but also huge burdens; unprecedented improvements in the quality of life,
but, increasingly, ominous deteriorations as well. Many decry a deepening moral vacuum and confusion over values in a time of
blistering social change. Many bemoan the blind pursuit of money without regard for other social values. And virtually everyone
reviles metastatic official corruption, even as he or she tries to navigate that swamp.
I can surmise that Xi understands the need, not for another Mao-like God-king, but for China's national leader to resume the role,
not only of top politician or development-policy strategist, but of Figure to Be Listened To by China's vast populace. In choosing
a slogan like "The China Dream," perhaps he aims to plant himself among the ranks of modern political leaders elsewhere, but, more
importantly, within a much longer Chinese continuum.
The problem, of course, is that today's China is not your grandmother's China. The nation was left numb by the unremitting
ideological bombardment of the Cultural Revolution period; 40 years later, many have observed that the ethical element of
Chinese people's existence is dangerously atrophied (see, e.g., this week's legislation ordering people to pay visits to their
elderly parents instead of abandoning them entirely). But it is far from clear that laying down a rhetorical formulation like "the
China Dream" and then propagating it throughout society, employing the familiar Leninist organizational methods so frequently used
in the past, will re-establish the link between the Figure To Be Heard and the Hearers. Given the fantastic, shibboleth-corroding
diversification made possible by the Internet (even with China's official intrusions into it), and the pulsating, surging appetite
for new wealth, it remains to be seen whether "The China Dream " will effectively help China secure its moorings, or whether
instead, like "Morning In America," or the "Contract With America," (or -- wasn't there something about a "New Covenant" a couple of
Administrations ago? I can't quite recall) -- it will be quietly retired in favor of something newer and catchier five, or at most
ten, years down the line.
As an American, it's hard to separate the rhetoric of a national "dream" from the forms it has taken in the United States: the
soaring evocative message of Dr. King's "dream," or the far tawdrier invoking of "the American Dream" in too many cheap present-day
political speeches. Let's hope that whoever coined the term "The China Dream" late last year, as Mr. Xi stepped into the highest
political office in China, wasn't simply borrowing an overused phrase from the American political lexicon.
At least, as the new regime prepares its scheme for the "urbanization" of hundreds of millions of disadvantaged rural dwellers, no
one is talking about "A Shining City on a Hill."