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What Is the “Chinese Dream” Really All About?

What Is the “Chinese Dream” Really All About?

<p>A ChinaFile Conversation</p>

Stein Ringen:

I’m coming to the view that the ‘Chinese Dream’ is a signal from the leadership of great import that has much to say about the nature of the Chinese state. It is striking, in my opinion, how effectively and rapidly the system swung into action to interpret and give content to the leader’s signal and flesh out its implications in ideology and practice.

Here are some of the things I’ve noted: Study and discussion groups organized throughout the party and government system; research projects launched in party schools and research institutes; newspapers and magazines running educational and commentary articles on the concept; state television, in both national and international services, staging learned debates; universities introducing the Chinese Dream into their political training of young academics. On Children’s Day the 1st of June 2013, children and parents across the country were mobilized to praise, depict and realise the Chinese Dream.

I’d be very glad for views and comments on this matter. And for examples of action, in particular what, if anything, is being done in the school system, such as political education of teachers and in curricula and teaching material.

Responses

I hope that the notion of the Chinese Dream is a signal that the Party recognizes that China ought not to be merely the world’s biggest factory, largest market, and most significant creator of pollution. I hope it is a recognition of the dignity and the aspirations of ordinary Chinese people.

Unfortunately, I have seen nothing to convince me that the Chinese Dream is anything but a shoddy ripoff of the American Dream, a propaganda campaign imposed from above as an ideological framework to justify continued Party rule, and to find a euphonious way of talking about China’s place in the world.

The emptiness of the concept was demonstrated in May when Xinhua reported that “a senior Chinese official… called for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) to research the “Chinese dream.” The official went on to say that the research “would provide academic support for self-confidence in the Chinese path, theories and system.” In other words, China’s leading think tank was given the task of finding an actual meaning for the Chinese dream.

On the other hand, on the Internet where you find ordinary Chinese people talking about their own ideas rather than Party ideology, many people joke that the real Chinese dream is to get a Green Card and emigrate to the United States.

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; forty 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.”

Topics: 
Stein Ringen is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. He was Professor of Welfare Studies at the University of Stockholm and has held...
Jeremy Goldkorn is the Founder and Director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet. Danwei has been publishing a popular website about Chinese media since 2003. After...
Robert Kapp began his working career as an historian of twentieth century China at Rice University and the University of Washington. However, his main career contributions have been to the building...

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What Should China Do to Reverse its Tourism Deficit...

LEAH THOMPSON, DAMIEN MA & more

Recent news stories and industry studies show that fewer international visitors are choosing China as their destination. January-June arrivals in Beijing are down 15% from the same period in 2012 and more Chinese than ever before are spending their money to travel abroad, “...

Conversation

08.07.13

What Will Come out of the Communist Party’s Polling the People Online...

DAVID WERTIME, DUNCAN CLARK & more

David Wertime:Simon Denyer’s recent article (“In China, Communist Party Takes Unprecedented Step: It Is Listening,” The Washington Post, August 2, 2013) provides a valuable look at some of the ways that Chinese authority mines domestic micro-blogging platforms like Weibo...

Conversation

08.01.13

How Dangerous Are Sino-Japanese Tensions...

JEROME A. COHEN

Sino-Japanese relations do not look promising at the moment. Obviously, the Diaoyu-Senkaku dispute is not the only factor in play but it does focus nationalist passions on both sides. Yet both countries are capable of wiser conduct if their leaders can manage to rise above the...

Conversation

07.30.13

Is Business in China Getting Riskier, Or Are Multinationals Taking More Risks...

ARTHUR R. KROEBER , DAVID SCHLESINGER & more

Arthur Kroeber:The environment for foreign companies in China has been getting steadily tougher since 2006, when the nation came to the end of a five-year schedule of market-opening measures it pledged as the price of admission to the World Trade Organization. Soon after the WTO-...

Conversation

07.25.13

The Bo Xilai Trial: What’s It Really About...

JEROME A. COHEN, ANDREW J. NATHAN & more

China has charged disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai with bribery, abuse of power and corruption, paving the way for a potentially divisive trial. But what’s at stake goes beyond the fate of one allegedly corrupt official: Is it really a fight between factions in the...

Conversation

07.23.13

What Would a Hard Landing in China Mean for the World...

BARRY NAUGHTON, JAMES MCGREGOR & more

Barry Naughton:Paul Krugman in a recent post (“How Much Should We Worry About a China Shock?” The New York Times, July 20, 2013) tells us NOT to worry about the impact of a slowing China on global exports, but to be worried, very worried about the indirect and unanticipated...

Conversation

07.18.13

Xu Zhiyong Arrested: How Serious Can Beijing Be About Political Reform...

DONALD CLARKE, ANDREW J. NATHAN & more

Donald Clarke:When I heard that Xu Zhiyong had just been detained, my first thought was, “Again?” This seems to be something the authorities do every time they get nervous, a kind of political Alka Seltzer to settle an upset constitution. I searched the web site of The New...

Conversation

07.16.13

What’s the Senate’s Beef with China’s Play for American Pork...

ARTHUR R. KROEBER , STEVE DICKINSON & more

Last week the U.S. Senate held hearings to question the CEO of meat-producer Smithfield Farms, about the proposed $4.7 billion sale of the Virginia-based company to Shuanghui International, China’s largest pork producer. The sale is under review by the Committee on Foreign...

Conversation

07.03.13

How Would Accepting Gay Culture Change China...

FEI WANG & STEVEN JIANG

Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the core provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act is not only “a stride toward greater equality in the United States, but also a shift that will reverberate far beyond our shores,” wrote novelist and University of...

Conversation

06.27.13

Is Xi Jinping’s Fight Against Corruption For Real...

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR, WINSTON LORD & more

Roderick MacFarquhar:Xi Jinping’s overriding aim is the preservation of Communist party rule in China, as he made clear in speeches shortly after his elevation to be China’s senior leader.  Like his predecessors, he is obsessed with the Gorbachev phenomenon and doesn't...

Conversation

06.25.13

How Badly Have Snowden’s Leaks Hurt U.S.-China Relations...

MATT SCHIAVENZA

Matt Schiavenza:In the understatement of the day, the United States is unhappy with the recent developments of the Edward Snowden situation. Just three days ago, Washington was in negotiations with Hong Kong to file a warrant for Snowden's arrest, a process which the U.S. hoped...

Conversation

06.21.13

How Should the World Prepare for a Slower China...

ARTHUR R. KROEBER & PATRICK CHOVANEC

Get Ready for a Slower ChinaThe recent gyrations on the Chinese interbank market underscore that the chief risk to global growth now comes from China. Make no mistake: credit policy will tighten substantially in the coming months, as the government tries to push loan growth from...

Conversation

06.18.13

What’s Right or Wrong with This Chinese Stance on Edward Snowden...

THE EDITORS, SHAI OSTER & more

The Editors: For today’s ChinaFile Conversation we asked contributors to react to the following excerpt from an op-ed published on Monday June 17 in the Global Times about Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old American contract intelligence analyst who last week in Hong Kong...

Conversation

06.13.13

Who’d You Rather Be Watched By: China or the U.S...

THE EDITORS, TAI MING CHEUNG & more

Editor’s note:Reports of U.S. gathering data on emails and phone calls have stoked fears of an over-reaching government spying on its citizens. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei worries that China will use the U.S. as an example to bolster its argument for surveillance on dissidents....

Conversation

06.11.13

What’s the Best Way to Advance Human Rights in the U.S.-China Relationship...

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN, SHARON HOM & more

Nicholas Bequelin:The best way to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship is first and foremost to recognize that the engine of human rights progress in China today is the Chinese citizenry itself. Such progress is neither the product of a gradual enlightenment of the...

Conversation

06.06.13

What Would the Best U.S.-China Joint Statement Say...

THE EDITORS, WINSTON LORD & more

As we approach the June 7-8 meeting in California of U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping we are holding a small contest. We have asked ChinaFile Conversation regulars and a few guests to envision their ideal Sunnylands summit and then write the joint...

Conversation

06.04.13

How Would Facing Its Past Change China’s Future...

DAVID WERTIME, ISABEL HILTON & more

David Wertime:The memory of the 1989 massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square remains neither alive nor dead, neither reckoned nor obliterated. Instead, it hangs spectre-like in the background, a muted but latently powerful symbol of resistance.There’s no question that an...

Conversation

05.29.13

What Should Obama and Xi Accomplish at Their California Summit...

SUSAN SHIRK, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

Susan Shirk:It’s an excellent idea for President Obama and President Xi to spend two days of quality time together at a private retreat in Southern California. Past meetings between Chinese and American presidents have been too short, formal and scripted for them to develop a...

Conversation

05.23.13

China and the Other Asian Giant: Where are Relations with India Headed...

MICHAEL KULMA, MARK FRAZIER & more

Mike Kulma:Earlier this week at an Asia Society forum on U.S.-China economic relations, Dr. Henry Kissinger remarked that when the U.S. first started down the path of normalizing relations with China in the early 1970s, the economic relationship and trade between the two...

Conversation

05.21.13

U.S.-China Economic Relations—What Will the Next Decade Bring...

JONATHAN LANDRETH, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

On Monday, within hours of the announcement that Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet U.S. President Barack Obama on a visit to California on June 7-8, Tung Chee-hwa, the former Chief Executive and President of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, introduced former U.S....

Conversation

05.16.13

China: What’s Going Right...

MICHAEL ZHAO, JAMES FALLOWS & more

Michael Zhao:On a recent trip to China, meeting mostly with former colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I got a dose of optimism and hope for one aspect of the motherland. In terms of science, or laying down a solid foundation for better science to come, things are...

Conversation

05.14.13

Why Can’t China Make Its Food Safe?—Or Can It...

ALEX WANG, JOHN C. BALZANO & more

The month my wife and I moved to Beijing in 2004, I saw a bag of oatmeal at our local grocery store prominently labeled: “NOT POLLUTED!” How funny that this would be a selling point, we thought.But 7 years later as we prepared to return to the US, what was once a joke had...

Conversation

05.10.13

What’s China’s Game in the Middle East...

RACHEL BEITARIE, MASSOUD HAYOUN & more

Rachel Beitarie:Xi Jinping’s four point proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is interesting not so much for its content, as for its source. While China has maintained the appearance of being involved in Middle East politics for years, its top leaders, so far,...

Conversation

05.07.13

Why Is a 1995 Poisoning Case the Top Topic on Chinese Social Media...

RACHEL LU, ANDREW J. NATHAN & more

With a population base of 1.3 billion people, China has no shortage of strange and gruesome crimes, but the attempted murder of Zhu Ling by thallium poisoning in 1995 is burning up China’s social media long after the trails have gone cold. Zhu, a brilliant and beautiful...

Conversation

05.02.13

Does Promoting “Core Interests” Do China More Harm Than Good...

THE EDITORS, STEPHANIE T. KLEINE-AHLBRANDT & more

On April 30, as tensions around China’s claims to territories in the South- and East China Seas continued to simmer, we began what proved to be a popular ChinaFile Conversation, asking the question, What's Really at the Core of China’s ‘Core Interests’? The participants...

Conversation

04.30.13

What’s Really at the Core of China’s “Core Interests...

SHAI OSTER, ANDREW J. NATHAN & more

Shai Oster:It’s Pilates diplomacy—work on your core. China’s diplomats keep talking about China’s core interests and it’s a growing list. In 2011, China included its political system and social stability as core interests. This year, it has added a vast chunk of the...

Conversation

04.25.13

Hollywood in China—What’s the Price of Admission...

JONATHAN LANDRETH, YING ZHU & more

Last week, DreamWorks Animation (DWA), the Hollywood studio behind the worldwide blockbuster Kung Fu Panda films, announced that it will cooperate with the China Film Group (CFG) on an animated feature called Tibet Code, an adventure story based on a series of recent Chinese...

Conversation

04.23.13

How Would You Spend (the Next) $300 Million on U.S.-China Relations...

ORVILLE SCHELL & MICHAEL KULMA

Orville Schell:When Stephen A. Schwarzman announced his new $300 million program aimed at sending foreign scholars to Tsinghua University in Beijing the way Rhodes Scholarship, set up by the businessman and statesman Cecil Rhodes in 1902 began sending American scholars to Oxford...

Conversation

04.18.13

How Fast Is China’s Slowdown Coming, and What Should Beijing Do About It...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, BARRY NAUGHTON & more

Slower Chinese GDP growth is not a bad thing if it’s happening for the right reasons. But it’s not happening for the right reasons.Instead of reining in credit to try to curb over-investment, Chinese authorities have allowed a renewed explosion in credit in an effort to fuel...

Conversation

04.16.13

Why is China Still Messing with the Foreign Press...

ANDREW J. NATHAN, ISABEL HILTON & more

To those raised in the Marxist tradition, nothing in the media happens by accident.  In China, the flagship newspapers are still the “throat and tongue” of the ruling party, and their work is directed by the Party’s Propaganda Department.  That’s the first...

Conversation

04.11.13

Why Is Chinese Soft Power Such a Hard Sell...

JEREMY GOLDKORN, DONALD CLARKE & more

Jeremy Goldkorn:Chairman Mao Zedong said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and he knew a thing or two about power, both hard and soft. If you have enough guns, you have respect. Money is the same: if you have enough cash, you can buy guns, and respect.Israel and Saudi...

Conversation

04.03.13

Bird Flu Fears: Should We Trust Beijing This Time...

DAVID WERTIME, YANZHONG HUANG & more

David Wertime:A new strain of avian flu called H7N9 has infected at least seven humans and killed three in provinces near the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, with the first death occurring on March 4. Meanwhile, in the last month, about 16,000 pigs, 1,000 ducks, and a few swans...

Conversation

04.02.13

Why Did Apple Apologize to Chinese Consumers and What Does It Mean...

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & more

Jeremy Goldkorn:On March 22, before the foreign media or Apple themselves seemed to have grasped the seriousness of the CCTV attacks on the Californian behemoth, I wrote a post on Danwei.com that concluded:“The signs are clear that regulators and establishment media would both...

Conversation

03.28.13

Will China’s Renminbi Replace the Dollar as the World’s Top Currency...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, DAMIEN MA & more

Patrick Chovanec:This week’s news that Brazil and China have signed a $30 billion currency swap agreement gave a renewed boost to excited chatter over the rising influence of China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB). The belief, in many quarters, is that the renminbi is well on...

Conversation

03.26.13

Can China Transform Africa...

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & more

Jeremy Goldkorn:The question is all wrong. China is already transforming Africa, the question is how China is transforming Africa, not whether it can. From the “China shops”—small stores selling cheap clothing, bags, and kitchenware—that have become ubiquitous in Southern...

Conversation

03.19.13

China’s New Leaders Say They Want to Fight Corruption. Can They? Will They...

ANDREW J. NATHAN & OUYANG BIN

In his first press conference after taking office as China's new premier, Li Keqiang declared that one of his top priorities would be to fight corruption, because “Corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water.” This put Li on message...

Conversation

03.15.13

Is the One Child Policy Finished—And Was It a Failure...

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ALEXA OLESEN & more

Dorinda Elliott:China’s recent decision to phase out the agency that oversees the one-child policy has raised questions about whether the policy itself will be dropped—and whether it was a success or a failure.Aside from the burdens only children feel when it comes...

Conversation

03.13.13

China’s Post 1980’s Generation—Are the Kids All Right...

SUN YUNFAN, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

This week, the ChinaFile Conversation is a call for reactions to an article about China's current generation gap, written by James Palmer, a Beijing-based historian, author, and Global Times editor. The article, first published by Aeon in the U.K., “The Balinghou: Chinese...

Conversation

03.08.13

Will China’s Property Market Crash, and So What If It Does...

DORINDA ELLIOTT & BILL BISHOP

Dorinda Elliott:At this week’s National People’s Congress, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that the government kept housing prices from rising too fast. Really? I wonder what my 28-year-old Shanghainese friend Robert thinks about that. He and his fiancée could never...

Conversation

03.06.13

Are Proposed Sanctions on North Korea a Hopeful Sign for U.S.-China Relations...

ORVILLE SCHELL, SUSAN SHIRK & more

Orville Schell:What may end up being most significant about the new draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council to impose stricter sanctions on North Korea, which China seems willing to sign, may not be what it amounts to in terms of denuclearizing the DPRK, but what it...

Conversation

03.01.13

Is America’s Door Really Open to China’s Investment...

DANIEL H. ROSEN, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

Daniel Rosen:There have not been many new topics in U.S.-China economic relations over the past decade: the trade balance, offshoring of jobs, Chinese holding of U.S. government debt, whether China’s currency is undervalued and intellectual property protection problems have...

Conversation

02.27.13

How Long Can China Keep Pollution Data a State Secret...

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

Elizabeth Economy:The environment is center stage once again in China. A Chinese lawyer has requested the findings of a national survey on soil pollution from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and been denied on the grounds that the information is a state secret. (The...

Conversation

02.22.13

Will Investment in China Grow or Shrink...

DONALD CLARKE & DAVID SCHLESINGER

Donald Clarke:I don’t have the answer as to whether investment in China will grow or shrink, but I do have a few suggestions for how to think about the question. First, we have to clarify why we want to know the answer to this question: what do we think it will tell us? This...

Conversation

02.20.13

Cyber Attacks—What’s the Best Response...

JONATHAN LANDRETH, JAMES FALLOWS & more

Jonathan Landreth:With regular ChinaFile Conversation contributor Elizabeth Economy on the road, I turned to her colleague Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Segal said that “the time for naming and...

Conversation

02.15.13

U.S.-China Tensions: What Must Kerry Do...

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ELIZABETH ECONOMY & more

Dorinda Elliott:On a recent trip to China, I heard a lot of scary talk of potential war over the disputed Diaoyu Islands—this from both senior intellectual types and also just regular people, from an elderly calligraphy expert to a middle-aged history professor. People seemed...

Conversation

02.13.13

North Korea: How Much More Will China Take and How Should the U.S. Respond...

WINSTON LORD, TAI MING CHEUNG & more

China is increasingly frustrated with North Korea and may even see more clearly that its actions only serve to increase allied unity, stimulate Japanese militarism and accelerate missile defense. For all these reasons the U.S. should lean on Beijing to—at last—not only help...

Conversation

02.08.13

Rich, Poor and Chinese—Does Anyone Trust Beijing to Bust the Corrupt...

ANDREW J. NATHAN, SUSAN SHIRK & more

Andrew Nathan:The new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping seems to be making some bold opening moves with its attacks on corruption and the announcement on February 5 of plans to reduce the polarization of incomes.  Does this mean Xi is leading China in new directions? ...

Conversation

02.06.13

Airpocalypse Now: China’s Tipping Point...

ALEX WANG, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

The recent run of air pollution in China, we now know, has been worse than the air quality in airport smoking lounges. At its worst, Beijing air quality has approached levels only seen in the United States during wildfires.All of the comparisons to London, Los Angeles, and New...

Conversation

02.01.13

China’s Cyberattacks — At What Cost...

JAMES FALLOWS, DONALD CLARKE & more

James Fallows: Here are some initial reactions on the latest hacking news.We call this the “latest” news because I don’t think anyone, in China or outside, is actually surprised. In my own experience in China, which is limited compared with many of yours, I’ve seen the...

Conversation

01.30.13

China, Japan and the Islands: What Do the Tensions Mean...

ORVILLE SCHELL, JOHN DELURY & more

How did the Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel islands come to replace Taiwan as the main source of tension for maritime Asia? And how are we to explain the fact that China’s foreign policy toward its Asian neighbors has now morphed from such slogans as: “Keep our heads down, and...