In this commentary we will analyze a new term which has been gaining huge attention in the Chinese media and is doing the rounds among China analysts - Chinese Dream.
Where did it the term start? This was the name of a book by Helen Wang in 2010 which interviews about 100 middle-class Chinese people and records their hopes and aspirations. The book tries to probe future Chinese cultural trends especially consumerism related. Having discovered the attractiveness of consumerism during these decades of economic growth, will China sustain itself on this path or will there be a return towards some of its old values. Next this term was picked up by Peggy Liu who started an NGO with the same name. Thomas Friedman journalist of the New York Times picked it up from Peggy Liu and brought it into focus in the Western world through an article "China Needs its Own Dream" in the New York Times, in Oct 2012. He hoped that the dream “marries people’s expectations of prosperity with a more sustainable China”. Both the Economist and Xinhua have credited Friedman for bringing up this concept.
At this point this term was quickly picked up by the Chinese political world at the highest level. After his elevation to the posts of General Secretary of the CPC (and nominated for the Presidency) at the 18th Central Committee meeting of the CPC in mid-November 2012, Xi Jinping referred to this dream in November end and said, “The great Chinese dream, is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This linking to national resurgence was a powerful inspirational usage of the term. This was much appreciated by the Chinese public and the term immediately went viral (usage just exploded) on the Chinese internet - on weibo (twitter-like Chinese micro-blog site) and on Sina (blogging site). Since then this has been used a number of times by various Chinese politicians.
In May 2013, Xi Jinping has himself elaborated on the dream. He dared the youth to dream and work hard to achieve their dreams and thereby also contribute to the rejuvenation of the nation. He asked the Party and the government to work as facilitators in enabling the people to achieve their dreams, to create the favorable for people's career development. He asked the youth to "cherish the glorious youth, strive with pioneer spirit and contribute their wisdom and energy to the realization of the Chinese dream." One can say that "cherish the youth", is asking them to use wisely their most energetic and productive years. And in "strive with pioneer spirit", the youth are being challenged to be fearless and ready to face dangers and overcome crisis, to be innovative and discover new opportunities.
Many commentators have pointed out that the stress of the Chinese Dream on entrepreneurial spirit makes it very similar to the "American Dream". Like the American Dream, the Chinese Dream also celebrates the self-made men and women and the hardworking upward moving rural immigrants of post-Mao China who have moved up in life to better living standards. The American Dream embodies the idea of making it big. That in America opportunities are available to everybody and anybody who works hard and smart can make use of them and find unlimited prosperity. The American Dream is ofcourse the core attraction of the American model - not just in America but across the globe. And in that sense this has been an extremely important constituent of vast American softpower. Even more than McDonalds and Apple etc whose softpower is based in material aspects, the American Dream is an even more powerful ideational concept which draws people at a deeper level. By pushing for the Chinese Dream the Chinese government is not only looking at inspiring and managing a growing aspirational middle class but also looking to challenge American softpower by presenting an equally powerful and attractive concept to the global population. That the American Dream has been more a sort of promise than a reality has never detracted from the power of the American Dream.
One also needs to wait and see how the individual-collective balance will be played out in the Chinese Dream. Although Xi Jinping has asked youth to "strive with pioneer spirit", will a substantially liberal individualist approach be permitted in reality?
One can get some clarity on this issue in an indirect manner. In mid-May 2013, many academic institutions of China received a notice “from the highest leadership,” listing seven subjects that must not be taught. Instead they must be taught something else. Specifically the notice says:
First, instead of conducting classes on human rights and other universal values, instruct students on “Chinese-style values”. Second, instead of discussing freedom of the press, teach the benefits of media control by the Communist Party.
It goes on like this till at point six it says, instead of criticizing the privileged classes, teach the “dreams of China”. This shows that the Chinese dream to be in line with Deng's idea that "some people will get rich earlier". The new guideline adds to this in a blunt manner, that one must not get envious of the rich and criticise them. Please click here (Japan Times, July 1, 2013) or here (South China Morning Post May 11, 2013) to read about the seven off limit topics.
As in the case of the American Dream, the Chinese Dream too serves the essential purpose of diverting attention from social discord based on economic inequality. China is currently witness to extreme inequality with the emergence of extremely privileged classes. There is a very real danger that this wide disparity could tear the social fabric and trigger of costly social upheavals. Through the softpower of the Chinese Dream the Chinese society is being encouraged to be patient and think positive. The Chinese Dream is a reminder that economic rewards and a better future is within the reach of anyone who works hard. And is it comes from the state it is more than a reminder it is a State's commitment! The aim seems to be to maintain harmony and provide hope to the less successful to enable them to avoid the disruptive distractions of anger or despair.
We have discussed above that the Chinese Dream is either an inspirational concept which is supposed to motivate the nation for a social rejuvenation or it is a pleasant opiate meant to pacify the deprived in order to maintain social harmony. Or it could serve both purposes. However, on the other hand it could also signify a change of direction. It could be a communication from the national leadership that the days of intense hard back-breaking low remuneration work might be over. The Chinese now will have better salaries ( witness their rising wage rates) and the much better social welfare (full health insurance, full old age insurance, 9 years of education, etc). The Chinese people should change focus and now think Big and dream Dreams. They must visualise a newer better world and work towards it. Possibly it could be linked to the Chinese desperation to match up to the West by achieving a more Innovative and Inventive China. It is only then that the Chinese Rejuvenation will have been really achieved. If China were to get stuck at its current stage and not move beyond its status as the acknowledged Manufacturing Workshop of the world, it would not be able to realize its dream of being a world leader. China has been investing huge resources into educational and research institutions to develop a commensurate innovative capability. But it has nothing substantial to show for all its efforts. Since the 1949 Revolution, the individual of China and his mind have been shackled by State and community regimentation because of an excess of politics and ideology. However, over the last couple of decades the State has been gradually but very deliberately been opening up the social, economic and cultural space. The Chinese people have used this freedom and developed new capabilities to utilise the provided space. But the challenge of achieving real creativity and inventiveness still remains formidable. The Chinese leadership is eager to facilitate real creativity to take root in China. In that sense, the Chinese Dream can also been seen as an invitation to the Chinese people to expand their mental horizons and rise to the new challenges of building, designing, visualising and inventing a better world.
There are some other instances where the term Chinese Dream has been used before Tom Friedman did it in Oct 2012. Gerard Lemos has written a book called The End of the Chinese Dream published in July 2012, in which he he has described that China despite the economic glitter is a broken society with lots of social problems and it is heading towards unhappiness and social turmoil. James Fallows of The Atlantic has a written an article in The Atlantic of May 2013 titled, "What is the Chinese Dream". He starts of by considering what the dream should be constituted of. And the answer he comes up with is that "simple bourgeois comforts" or material goals should constitute a substantial part of the Chinese Dream.
He then goes on to mention the desirability of "universalism" for international relations and for imagining a global community. It provides a common set of standards by which everyone across the globe can and should be judged and evaluated by. He goes on to say that Western values have filled the gap because of their desirability. But he also recognises the implied "look down upon others" type-of condescension and the real-life discrimination which accompanies the Western values discourse.
Using that as a backdrop he goes on to make his main point that the Rise of China is set in a different world in a different context. China's past growth can be attributed to social ambitions of Chinese individuals which motivated them to energetically apply themselves for the benefit of themselves, their families and as a result their nation. However, according to him the desired-for and aspired-for Future, which for him is the Chinese Dream, should consist of a world where personal and private goals can be realised. A world which can be realised only when the Chinese government will be willing to give up its remaining control over the public sphere to fully liberate the Chinese mind from fear. James Fallows has just used the Chinese Dream concept in a creative manner to repackage the Western calls for greater democracy. Just a smarter way to keep the pressurize on China calling for greater individual freedom. He is not asking China to adhere to west-determined "universal values". Instead he is asking them to adhere to a "Chinese" Dream but which he has cunningly packed with western values of individual freedom. Moreover he serves it as a carrot when he says that this Dream will enable China to attain its goal of national greatness.
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Wang Xiaodong the well-known nationalist commentator has also commented on the Chinese Dream in 2009. He says that the Dream signifies Big and Important Milestones. In that sense he sees it is a grave mistake to consider the successful conduct of Beijing Olympics in 2008 as realizing the Chinese Dream. He feels that it was just fun and games. On the other hand he provides examples which he feels have achieving some aspects of the Chinese Dream. He feels that the successful Reform and Opening Up which have made China great and tremendously increased its power and prestige are entitled to be a part of the ongoing Chinese Dream. In the same manner Three Gorges Dam, the handling of the Wenchuan Earthquake and Shenzhou V, Shenzhou VI and Shenzhou VII manned space travels are worthy to be a part of the Chinese Dream.
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