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Do Two Dreams Equal a Nightmare?

Why Xi Jinping’s vision of a future China cannot coexist with the American Dream.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

As President Barack Obama meets with President Xi Jinping of China this weekend in California, much more is at stake than the media’s preferred storyline about whether the two presidents will discard their formal talking points in favor of casual "shirtsleeves" conversation.

Indeed, so much anticipation has been built up about interactions between U.S. and Chinese officials that we often overlook the fundamental point about America’s relationship with China: What is at stake in what some call the most important relationship of the century is nothing less than the type of world we will leave to our children and grandchildren. 

This will be determined by the outcome of two dreams. One is the American Dream that for decades has served as an example to the rest of the world of what is possible for Americans of all classes, if they work hard to succeed and rise above the circumstances of their birth. That dream is increasingly out of reach for many, as the opportunities once afforded to every American no longer can be taken for granted. Many feel the system is now stacked against them.

The other dream is the so-called Chinese Dream that President Xi has spoken about frequently since assuming power earlier this year. This dream holds that China is destined to become a great power, and that meeting the Chinese people’s "desire for a happy life" is the mission of China’s rulers.

Although Xi’s dream has echoes of the American Dream, these two visions are very different and ultimately incompatible if China desires to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. Which dream succeeds in the coming decades will have profound implications, not just for the United States and China, but for the world.

That’s because for almost seven decades, the United States has served as the primary guarantor of peace and stability in the world. It has built alliances, helped establish international institutions, protected the international sea lanes on which commerce flows and helped spread freedom and prosperity. In times of crisis, America has provided leadership and, when necessary, the lives of its citizens to advance its ideals and defend its security.

That is now all in question because of the last four and a half years of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Our allies are often left looking for leadership. Our military staying power is being undermined by the president’s arbitrary defense cuts. And when crises arise, from Asia to the Middle East, both our enemies and our allies are often left searching for clarity on America’s position. Too often, they come up empty.

As this perception of American retreat grows, Chinese leaders are presenting an image of the Chinese Dream that is not realistic to its people or to its neighbors.

China has been experiencing impressive economic growth, by copying parts of the American economic model and enjoying the stability afforded by U.S. power. Many of its citizens have been able to enjoy the fruits of that progress. However, hundreds of millions still have not, a challenge that President Xi will need to face as he tries to adapt the Chinese economic model of managed capitalism quickly enough to respond to these pressures. The clamor among the public for serious change is only growing — and the limited reforms that the party leadership has been willing to parcel out will not be sufficient for long. 

Beyond these questions about the sustainability of China’s economic model, the China Dream is unappealing to the rest of the world because of other factors. 

This week marked the 24th anniversary of the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists, many of them students, in Tiananmen Square. The fact that nearly a quarter century after this tragedy, the Chinese authorities still go to great lengths to isolate dissidents on the anniversary and block searches online for commentary and photos from those events shows the fragility of the Chinese Dream.

Despite its rapidly modernizing economy, China is a country where freedom of speech and assembly do not exist. Churches are routinely raided and shut down. Forced sterilizations and abortions are common. Political persecution, including detention without trial and violations of fundamental human rights, are the norm. No nation that conducts such acts can guarantee the happiness of its citizens.

What leaders in Beijing often forget is that how a country treats its citizens often portends how it will treat its neighbors. And China’s neighbors will increasingly view its rise with suspicion and dread as long as these policies continue, regardless of its economic power. They are not clamoring for the China Dream, but are instead worried that their American Dream, of a beneficent ally, may be waning. 

Despite this bleak picture, America can return to the right course, get our economy in order, and resume the global leadership required to ensure that the rise of China and other powers occurs peacefully.

The first step should be for President Obama to speak frankly with President Xi about the areas where Washington and Beijing disagree. Far too often, across multiple administrations of both political parties, U.S. leaders have sought to play down irritants in the relationship in an effort to avoid controversy. The U.S.-China relationship is important enough that this is no longer feasible. 

The administration needs to build on its first term "pivot" to Asia by quantifying what this policy will mean in an age of shrinking U.S. military resources. Washington needs to send the message to both its allies — as well as Beijing — that the United States will remain a Pacific power and that it is willing to make the military and economic commitments to do so, including through efforts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Currently, the administration’s commitment is being questioned in the region. Key to reversing this perception is ensuring that U.S. treaty commitments are reaffirmed — including with Japan, which faces pressure from China over the Senkaku Islands. We also need to reaffirm our commitment to stand with our democratic allies in Taiwan as they face a growing military challenge from the mainland.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the president needs to put America’s democratic principles front and center in discussions with China. This is important because it is perhaps the greatest difference between the two dreams. America was founded on the notion that every human being has the God-given right to be free. 

In his discussions with Xi in Sunnydale this weekend, Obama should highlight specific cases, including that of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and make the point that Beijing cannot continue to shock the conscience of humanity with its violations of fundamental human rights and its policies toward Tibetans and other minority ethnic groups. This interaction should be the beginning of a sustained U.S. effort to raise these issues at all levels with Beijing.

U.S.-Chinese conflict on these and other important global issues is not preordained. But it will become increasingly likely if U.S. officials continue to focus on atmospherics and fail to tackle the tough issues that divide the two countries. Measurable progress from Beijing on issues such as China’s treatment of its citizens and neighbors, on the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, on cybersecurity, and on its respect for a rules-based trading system is the best way to begin to improve U.S.-China relations.

Meanwhile, back at home, we need to shore up the American Dream. We need to ensure that our children once again have the opportunity to follow the paths of our parents to a better life. We need to restore optimism and hope in our citizenry about America’s role in the world.

If America does these things, we will be well on the way to ensuring that the twenty-first century, just like the one that preceded it, is an American Century — and that the American Dream continues to be what people everywhere aspire to, for decades to come.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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