What Is the “Chinese Dream” Really All About?

A ChinaFile Conversation

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.


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.”