Foreign Relations & International Law

Xi’s Cautious Inching Towards the China Dream

Timothy R. Heath
Monday, August 7, 2023, 8:00 AM

 Beijing’s current strategy for ensuring CCP rule through mid-century and beyond heavily emphasizes domestic threats. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at an informal meeting with the leaders of the BRICS countries before the commencement of the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit, July 7, 2017. (Kremlin,; CC BY 4.0,

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The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) stated ambition to ensure the nation’s revitalization, also called the “China Dream,” now lies two decades away. How do Chinese leaders intend to navigate the intervening years? Will China act cautiously or aggressively to realize its aims? Many observers fear China may become belligerent due to overconfidence, insecurity, or other reasons. Graham Allison and others have warned that an increasingly powerful China might chance a war to secure international leadership. Some experts have argued Beijing might risk military aggression to stave off the country’s diminishing prospects. Beijing’s ambition to “reunify” with Taiwan, according to other observers, could lead it to risk conflict with the United States. Not all observers agree with such belligerent predictions. But the debate continues in part due to the opaque nature of Chinese decision-making under an increasingly autocratic Xi Jinping.

But is the Chinese government’s thinking about the coming decades a completely impenetrable “black box”? If the China Dream is as important to CCP legitimacy as they claim, then authorities have a compelling incentive to ensure its realization. Such realization entails, in great part, an effective use of the party state bureaucracy. Clear and consistent publication of instructions to the bureaucracy can ensure a unified effort to promote the leadership’s goals. Mobilization of popular sentiment offers another valuable asset. Through consistent messaging, the populace could help ensure political stability in the event of setbacks. Providing a clear sense of purpose and moral justification for a national effort can help mitigate the destabilizing effects of shocks and unexpected losses. Directing the bureaucracy and mobilizing the populace through propaganda carries the additional important political benefit of underscoring the power and authority of the autocrat in charge. For such reasons, past Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping routinely gave high-profile speeches, issued documents, and directed extensive propaganda in anticipation of major events such as the initiation of wars or major political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward. The clear articulation of national purpose (and tight censorship of grim realities) helped bolster political support despite the mass casualties and catastrophic economic losses that many of those endeavors entailed. It also often added to the prestige and personal authority of the paramount leader. Given the extraordinary importance placed on the “China Dream” as a basis of legitimacy for CCP rule, the Chinese leadership has just as strong an incentive as its predecessors to publicly and repeatedly declare its strategy to achieve that end state.

This insight provides important clues as to where analysts should look to better grasp how Beijing intends to manage the coming decades. The best and most reliable source of data consists of relevant speeches, documents, and propaganda conveyed to the entire party state bureaucracy and to the public that address national goals and priorities. The most important of these are attributed to Xi himself on behalf of the party’s collective leadership, such as the 20th Party Congress report and instructions for five-year programs. Government white papers also provide authoritative assessments and summarize the top leadership’s policies and priorities. Speeches by Xi at high-profile events that address national-level topics, such as the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding in 2021, the 2019 seminar for provincial and ministerial leaders, and relevant work conferences, also can shed valuable insight. Commentary and propaganda in official media organs like Xinhua and People’s Daily can amplify the main themes and points.

Chinese leaders make speeches and issue policy documents to address a variety of audiences and topics. But the above-listed publicly available sources are the only ones that can provide insight into Beijing’s thinking for the coming decades. This is because speeches and documents on national-level goals and priorities address, implicitly or explicitly, the inevitable trade-offs between competing goals and priorities. They also provide the fundamental political and moral justifications that can help mitigate unexpected shocks and losses. By contrast, speeches to specific ministries and more targeted audiences are less reliable since they are principally designed to provide tailored and specific instructions to guide the work of relevant bureaucracies. This includes those speeches to military constituencies cited by observers as evidence that China may be planning a war. In reality, Xi’s demands that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ensure its combat readiness merely direct the military to more effectively carry out its responsibilities. Previous leaders such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao made similar calls to prepare for combat in the same types of speeches. Nor should this be surprising. One of the military’s most important jobs, after all, is precisely to prepare for contingencies. All militaries plan for contingencies with designated potential adversaries in mind, including the U.S. military, as defense strategy documents make clear. In short, the PLA’s modernization and preparation for combat contingencies do not imply any political decision to actually initiate a war

A Worsening Security Environment

What do Xi’s instructions to the broader party-state bureaucracy tell us about China’s intentions in the next few decades? Although Chinese leaders have judged that strategic opportunities persist, they increasingly regard risks and dangers as equally prominent, if not more so. Regarding security concerns through 2035, Xi stated at the 20th Party Congress in 2022 that “[t]he current and coming period will be a period prone to all kinds of contradictions and risks in our country, with a marked increase in risk factors, both foreseeable and difficult to foresee.”

However, although commentators frequently assume that Xi must be referring to the United States and Taiwan, this is not the case. These source documents consistently regard domestic dangers as the most menacing. When Xi described the threats to national security at the 20th Party Congress, for example, he began by listing issues of “social governance”—a reference to popular discontent over corruption, inequality, and local malfeasance. He then mentioned “ethnic separatists, religious extremists, and violent terrorists” as well as organized crime and natural disasters before moving on to other perils including pressure from the United States. Similarly, in a 2019 speech in which Xi outlined the seven most prominent “major risks” to China’s pursuit of the China Dream, he listed dangers related to “politics,” “ideology,” “the economy,” “science and technology,” “society,” “the external environment,” and “party building.” 

Only the dangers posed by the “external environment” implied a potential external military threat. However, Xi described this danger in fairly moderate terms. Compared to the domestic challenges, Xi did not characterize Taiwan or the United States as threatening to the CCP’s survival. Although in some speeches he has criticized the United States, Xi has to date refrained from depicting war as inevitable, likely, or desirable. Xi has not made any major changes in policy priorities that would justify military action to secure Taiwan, such as the subordination of economic growth and social stability to national unification as national priorities. Nor did he adopt language that could justify massive risk-taking or catastrophic casualties in pursuit of yet-to-be-achieved party objectives or anticipated conflict. Despite a worsening security environment, Chinese leaders appear to judge the external situation as tense but manageable. In speeches and government documents, Xi repeatedly expressed confidence that peace would prevail and that the threat of war is low. The 2019 defense white paper, for example, criticized Taiwan and U.S. behavior in the Asia-Pacific region but deemed the area “generally stable.”

China may not be planning to initiate conflict, but could unanticipated developments drive it to war? Given the tumult of recent years, it is not unreasonable to believe shocking and unanticipated developments could unfold in the United States or Taiwan. Chinese leaders appear acutely aware of such possibilities. At the 20th Party Congress, Xi warned of potential “black swans” (unexpected developments with a major impact) and “gray rhinos” (highly probable, high-impact events that are often neglected) and stated “uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising.” In a speech to students at the Central Party School in 2019, Xi similarly warned that on the “road to rejuvenation,” the country might “encounter raging torrents and storms beyond our imagination.”

To head off such dangers, authorities have clearly and consistently outlined a set of strategic guidance that generally favors caution and the reduction of risk in pursuit of development goals. Xi has done this by stating a series of priorities and principles that all decision-making should adhere to, regardless of what crises may emerge. These may be summarized as directives to prioritize national development, consolidate CCP rule, strengthen national security, manage risk, and incrementally expand China’s influence. 

Prioritize National Development

Xi has consistently stated that national development will remain a top priority in the next few decades. At the 20th Party Congress, he stated that the CCP’s “central task” for the coming years will be to lead the people to “build a powerful, modern socialist country in a comprehensive way.” Similarly, in explaining the goals of the party’s plans for 2035, Xi similarly upheld the “main theme” of promoting “high-quality economic and social development.” Xi explained that this required a focus on “high-quality development,” strengthening technological innovation, improving governance, enhancing the country’s cultural appeal, and advancing the country’s ecological condition. In the event of a crisis, authorities may accordingly aim to preserve prospects for sustaining national development. 

Consolidate CCP Rule

Xi has emphasized the consolidation of CCP rule as a second major principle. This includes measures to both strengthen the party internally and bolster the popular base of support. In terms of party-strengthening, Xi has on numerous occasions reiterated the importance of improving the CCP’s capacity to govern, tightening discipline, and improving ideological commitments. Supporting commentaries also emphasize the importance of tackling major popular grievances, such as crime, corruption, and inequity as complementary to party-strengthening efforts as the best way to ensure the CCP’s grip on power. This suggests that, in a crisis, leaders will hesitate to take rash actions that could endanger CCP rule or undermine popular support. 

Enhance National Security 

Xi has emphasized the strengthening of national security as a third key principle. At the 20th Party Congress, Xi directly linked the pursuit of security to the nation’s focus on development. Similarly, at the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding in 2021, Xi emphasized the importance of applying security considerations to all dimensions of national security. The 13th Five-Year Program introduced national security requirements as part of the party’s development plan, an innovation that carried over into the 14th Five-Year Program. This principle suggests that, in a crisis, officials may seek to preserve as much as possible the sources of economic strength, social stability, and CCP rule.

Reduce Risk

Reflecting the generally cautious outlook adopted by Chinese leaders regarding the coming decades, Xi has consistently emphasized the importance of managing and reducing risks. In a 2019 speech to provincial and ministerial leaders, he stated, “Guarding against and resolving major risks is a political duty of Party committees, governments, and leading cadres at all levels.” At the 20th Party Congress, he similarly emphasized the importance of “preventing and mitigating major risks.” He has explained how officials should do this more specifically in different avenues. For example, when addressing “economic security,” he explained officials should “properly deal with major risks” that might arise in real estate and financial markets, and from unemployment.  

Incrementally Expand Chinese Influence

Xi has also called for gradually shaping the international situation to progress to long-standing goals in a low-risk manner. He has emphasized, for example, the importance of expanding Chinese influence on international norms and rules in the coming decades, as well as bolstering diplomatic relations and interactions with all countries, especially those associated with the Belt and Road Initiative. He also has directed officials to balance the safeguarding of China’s interests with the preservation of stability, suggesting a preference for non-war methods of progressing towards unresolved goals such as Taiwan’s status or Chinese claims in disputed maritime regions. In a crisis, Chinese leaders may seek to preserve opportunities to resume the government’s incremental strategy of gradually changing the status quo.

These principles and priorities are meant to serve as guidelines according to which major policy decisions should adhere in the next few decades. They are broad and general enough to permit flexible application to virtually any domestic and international development. How the government may abide by these priorities and principles in practice can be observed in the Chinese reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. Its behavior in both instances has been largely consistent with the strategy outlined above: China has prioritized development by balancing its need for Western markets with its close partnership with Russia; maintained the CCP’s firm grip on power; reduced risks by advocating for an end to war rather than expanding conflict through its own direct participation; and incrementally increased China’s influence through propaganda and attempts to fracture the NATO alliance with its own peace initiatives. Contrary to the fears of some experts, China did not attempt to exploit either crisis by chancing an invasion of Taiwan. In all likelihood, Beijing’s response to any development that occurs in Taiwan or in the United States in the next two decades will adhere to the same general set of principles and priorities. 

CCP Prepares for Its Second Century

After decades of rapid growth, China has overseen a general modernization, and its military and economic power is second only to that of the United States. Despite its myriad challenges, the China Dream has largely, although not completely, been achieved, which is why Xi has expressed such confidence about its realization. Xi stated in 2012 that the China Dream will “definitely be realized” by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. And at the 20th Party Congress, Xi described the nation’s revitalization as “on an irreversible historical course.” 

Not all goals have been achieved, of course. Most notably, China has failed to unify with Taiwan. But this failure did not prevent Beijing from judging its own performance as an unqualified success at the centenary of the CCP’s founding in 2021, a symbolic date arguably equal in importance to that of the anticipated centenary of the PRC’s establishment. In his speech at that event, Xi expressed no bitterness, regret, or humiliation at the goals left unfulfilled. Rather, he judged the party achievements as “great and glorious.” 

Since China has largely achieved its goals of modernization, the challenge it faces through the midcentury will be to manage the effects of economic deceleration and relative decline. With growth slowing and the domestic and international situation becoming more complicated, the CCP faces strong incentives to maintain a cautious attitude. China’s best prospects for enduring into the following century lie in avoiding war if possible, shoring up the party’s political position and popular base of support, continuing to develop, and mitigating risks where possible. This well summarizes the approach outlined by Xi for the next few decades.

Xi will not stay in power forever, of course. The 70-year-old autocrat may not even remain in power through the entire duration of the two decades leading up to midcentury. What path Xi’s successor chooses cannot be predicted with any certainty. The possibility that a successor could abandon the current cautious approach in favor of a more aggressive strategy cannot be discounted. Yet formidable obstacles to dramatic change persist. One reason why Xi’s accrual of supreme power has generated so little elite conflict is that his generally cautious pursuit of the China Dream generally accords with many party elites and much of the public. To be sure, Xi has coerced and bullied many countries, but he has refrained from high-risk actions that could derail the leadership’s ambitions for the China Dream. China last fought a war 40 years ago and shows no inclination to chance another one. And Xi has shied away from the often-catastrophic political campaigns that Mao Zedong routinely initiated. A successor who favored a radical, belligerent strategy would need to build consensus in part by overcoming advocates of the current cautious strategy—a risky and potentially destabilizing prospect. 

Beijing’s apparent aversion to war should provide the United States some breathing room to rebuild its own military and attend to its own pressing domestic demands. However, it also means the United States will need to consider competition and “gray-zone” tactics as the principal challenge from China for the foreseeable future. Moreover, Washington may need to adopt a broader perspective if it is to maintain deterrence near Taiwan over the long term. If China is willing to wait many more decades to resolve Taiwan’s status, the United States may need to match Beijing’s patience with its own in what could prove an exceptionally long-lasting rivalry. 

Timothy R. Heath is a senior international defense researcher with the RAND Corporation.

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