If you are a citizen of China or a laowai with a sincere interest in China, the Chinese Dream is a phrase you will already have encountered with increasing frequency these past several months. Here (I live in Baotou, Inner Mongolia) it has prominence on public billboards, on marquees and in adverts and public service announcements on the state-run CCTV news network. The Chinese Dream has all the marks of a viral marketing campaign, fuelled by a prominent position in official Party language.
It has in essence become the catchphrase of the new President Xi Jinping’s political programme of reform and revitalisation, and has deliberate echoes of the American Dream – making it clear that China is an aspirational society. Conveniently enough, the concept is, like all such political abstractions, devoid of concrete content, which allows for wildly divergent interpretations of what those aspirations actually are.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the concept has been pounced on by both ends of the spectrum of acceptable discourse in Chinese society, as all manner of interests, political pressure groups and ideological cliques within and without the CCP claim it for their own. It has been interpreted as an environmental dream or a dream of sustainable development by China’s greens; as a jingo dream of military-led national glory by China’s nationalists; as an individualist dream by capitalists; as a collectivist dream by old-guard communists; as a ‘constitutional dream’ by China’s liberals (favoured by Thomas Friedman, writing for the Economist).
Perhaps the icing on the cake is the CCP’s claim, stating a truth they did not intend, that the Chinese dream is the ‘essence of socialism with Chinese characteristics’–-that is to say, the distilled essence of a Deng-era abstraction which has rung ever more hollow as time has gone on. It isn’t exactly news that there is nothing socialist about Chinese socialism. But then, there isn’t really much about it that is genuinely Chinese, either.
So what should we say about this public dream? Even if it doesn’t truly mean anything in itself, it still says something quite profound (and in some cases, deeply ironic) about the people who use it, and about the purposes for which it is being used. In the political sense, it is often used in connexion with a vision of a China renewed to the status and prestige it once had, before the defeats of the Qing Dynasty at the hands of a British Empire intent on opening free trade (in drugs) in that country, at the point of a gun.
Opium was not the only destructive mind-altering import that China was forced to take, however. The Opium Wars, and the period of self-critique and introspection about China’s weakness which followed inevitably on the heels of those wars, opened China to a wide host of ideological imports which had not until then had much currency: nationalism, pseudo-scientific racism, eugenics, free-market and free-trade liberalism, democratic theory, socialism and, ultimately, Marxism and Leninism, whose theories gave rise to Mao Zedong and all who followed him.
The true irony of the Chinese Dream is this. Far from drawing China’s people to a greater unity of purpose, as certain commentators on the nationalist side claim was the intent, it unveils a certain set of divisions in the society – for different groups of people, the Chinese Dream means different things (or, as New Yorker commentator Evan Osnos notes, “the proliferation of 1.3 billion China Dreams” may be the end result).
The programme, whose aim in President Xi’s terms is to bring about a Chinese renaissance and restore China to its former glory, is (contra Thomas Friedman’s assertion that it marks an end of ideologically-driven Chinese policy-making in favour of “plainly practical politics”) in actuality serving as a battleground upon which the rivalries of all the ideological imports from the era of China’s national humiliation are playing out. Again.
But notable by their relative silence in all this theorising are China’s home-grown traditionalists, the Mainland China New Confucians led by Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang on the academic side, and by Yu Dan on the pop-culture side. This is puzzling when one considers that the Chinese Dream is considered particularly by the environmentalists and sustainable-development theorists to be intimately connected with the xiaokang shehui, the “Society of Small Pleasures”, an ideal of a well-off society with limits which has its roots in Confucian thinking.
It is all the more puzzling when one considers the role that dreaming had, particularly in the Analects. Confucius himself at one point laments that it has been a long time since he dreamt of the Duke of Zhou, the most important reformer of the Zhou Dynasty who put an end to human sacrifice, who introduced the political concept of the Mandate of Heaven and who codified the rites and music of the Zhou court. The dream of the past which Confucius had could be said to have inspired his humane ethics and his socio-political philosophy.
Whereas the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi used his ‘butterfly dream’ to promote a form of scepticism about waking life, Confucius’ dream of the Duke of Zhou galvanised him and his followers to begin reforming the society they lived their waking lives in, also a divided society characterised by militarism, a massive wealth gap and political and mercantile classes obsessed only with their own power and profit, respectively. But this is a dream intimately tied to a vision of the good life and human excellence, rooted in the reality of human relationships: in short, not mere aspiration or appetite without boundaries, but a dream with content.
My experience amongst people in China, both here in Inner Mongolia and amongst my in-laws in Henan, is that their dreams, considered in concrete terms, are fashioned along similar lines, and include the spiritual well-being of themselves and their families: not just material wealth and influence but friendship and familial loyalty still play a strong role in their orientation to the world around them. The local men and women here in Baotou whom I have come to regard as close acquaintances may indeed dream of owning a house (or two or three if they are the speculating sort), a car, a university education for their children, and guarantees of material security; but they also dream of having their parents and children live close to them, and of being the sort of people who may be relied on for favours. Certainly my wife has these sorts of aspirations with regard to her own parents and friends. The people I have met here who have come from other provinces do indeed have aspirations for material success, but these are often intimately connected with returning to home and family. In Luoyang there is a popular municipal beautification and preservation campaign which draws upon the deep-rooted pride the people who live there have in their ancient city. These perspectives do provide an interesting and frankly inspiring twist to what the Chinese Dream may end up coming to mean.
The open question on the political side of things is, which version of the Chinese Dream will end up ‘winning out’? Ultimately, though, I think the political side is only half of the picture (or less). Naturally, each of the teams of ideological brawlers over the meaning of the Chinese Dream assume that the Chinese people will line up neatly behind its respective vision, whether out of patriotism or love of freedom. Despite the well-noted consumerism of modern Chinese culture, however, it is far from clear to me that they will do so. It is common to hear people bemoan what they see as a culture, particularly on the coast, which is growing ever more crass and profit-obsessed–-and not just among elderly folk, either. The religious turn being taken by a greater and greater proportion of the traditionally-atheistic Chinese populace may also be indication that the consumer benefits of post-Deng capitalism are simply not enough. The Chinese Dream will not be over for a long while yet, but certain proponents of the Dream may be in for a rude awakening.