Ruling elites almost everywhere — whether in democracies or in authoritarian regimes — believe that clever sloganeering can inspire their people and legitimize their power. Of course, there are crucial differences between the two systems: In functioning democracies, government leaders can be held accountable for their promises, the media can scrutinize their policies and opposition parties are motivated to show that the party in power lies and cheats. As a result, incumbents are frequently forced to carry out at least some of their promises.
By contrast, autocratic rulers face no such pressures. Press censorship, repression of dissent and the absence of organized opposition allow rulers the luxury of promising whatever they want, with no political consequences for failing to deliver. The result is a government of the sloganeers, by the sloganeers and for the sloganeers.
China appears to have perfected this form of government over the past decade. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in response to rising public demand for social justice, has devised numerous slogans, such as “governing for the people,” “building a harmonious society,” “balanced development” and “scientific development.”
Whenever the top leadership in Beijing uttered such slogans, they became the rallying cry of the bureaucracy. The party’s massive propaganda machine went into overdrive and blanketed the country with a publicity blitz that would make the most extravagant Madison Avenue advertising campaign look like child’s play.
However, government by slogan, whether in China or in other autocracies, seldom achieves its declared goals. In the past decade, China’s GDP growth soared, but most indices of social justice, governance performance and public welfare deteriorated. Macroeconomic imbalances worsened as economic growth became excessively dependent on investment and exports, inequality worsened, official corruption escalated, social mobility declined and environmental degradation reached a crisis point.
Today, it is the responsibility of China’s new leadership, headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), to avert another decade of missed opportunities. Without missing a beat, Xi, like his predecessors, rolled out a new slogan to inspire popular confidence in his leadership. As a catchphrase for his administration’s objective, “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation” is bit long, but it has lately morphed into the simpler “China Dream.”
The substance of the “China Dream” remains difficult to determine. When Xi first unveiled his slogan after being selected as the CCP’s new general secretary, he defined it in simple, accessible, but nonetheless generic terms, saying: the “Chinese people dream of living the same good life as all other people in the world.”
Xi has said little about the “China Dream” since — and his silence has caused considerable trouble. China’s ever-zealous propaganda officials, evidently fearful of not demonstrating sufficient loyalty and respect for the new party leader, quickly hijacked the slogan and the “China Dream” has replaced the “China Model” in official political branding. Whatever the new administration does is touted as part of its ambitious effort to make the “China Dream” come true.
Unfortunately, China propagandists — who double as censors — have a perverse ability to discredit anything they try to brand, and the “China Dream” is no exception. So far, public reaction has ranged from puzzlement to derision. After a decade of government by slogan, the Chinese public wants substance.