Since Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in 2012 that his “China Dream” is for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” many of us have wondered just what this new slogan means.
It’s common to compare it with the American Dream, and to note the differences: the China Dream is for the collective success of the Chinese nation, while the American Dream speaks to individual achievement.
But if we think of national dreams in a wider sense, the Chinese and American dreams are similar: both are broad conversations about national aspirations and national identity. While they certainly can be jingoistic celebrations of success, both dreams actually appeared in times of crisis, as calls for change.
In other words, the American and the China dream are more complex than they first appear.
We like to trace the American Dream back to the Pilgrims. But the phrase itself first appeared in 1931, in James Truslow Adams’s popular history The Epic of America. The American Dream, which was born during the crisis of the Great Depression, has always been about both individual success and collective social justice. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech outlined the American Dream of racial and class equality.
The China Dream likewise appeared at a time of crisis, as a call for change. Certainly, from an American vantage point, the PRC appears very successful: it enjoyed over three decades of rapid economic growth that has pulled half a billion people out of poverty. But from a Chinese perspective, one can see that this economic growth produced serious social and ecological problems: official corruption, environmental pollution, and a polarized society. In the late 2000s, people thus started to discuss the China Dream as a response to what they see as the “values crisis” that is provoked by China’s new “money-worship” society.
Still, just what is the China Dream? Is it a nationalist dream, a collective dream or an individual dream? According to Xi Jinping, it is all three: “to fulfill the China Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must achieve a rich and powerful country, the revitalization of the nation, and the people’s happiness.”
Here, individual dreams are important in ways familiar to Americans. The China Dream evokes aspirations of the “dream job,” the “dream house,” and the “dream of the good life.”
My favorite example is the China Idol TV singing contest, which in Chinese is called the Voice of the China Dream, because it appeals to the logic of the American Dream: with a little luck and talent, and a lot of hard work, you can achieve fabulous success. This China Dream is cosmopolitan: South Korean boy bands are frequent quests on the TV show, and in 2013 the winner of the contest sung a duet with Lionel Richie.
On the other hand, the China Dream can be very nationalist. Many commentators in the PRC distinguish China’s dream of national wealth and power from Americans’ dreams of personal freedom and happiness. China here is defined as a nation united in its virtuous pursuit of global power, while America is portrayed as a collection of individuals bent on their own selfish schemes. According to these commentators. China and the U.S. are involved in a Cold War-style contest of the American Dream versus the China Dream.
China’s nationalist dream is buttressed by a strong military: a popular news photograph shows sailors lined up on the deck of China’s first aircraft carrier to spell out “China Dream, Strong Military Dream.” Actually, the first book about the China Dream was written by an army officer: Colonel Liu Mingfu’s The China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post-American Era (2010) argues that China needs to reclaim its martial values in order to replace the U.S. as the leader of the world. Importantly, Xi Jinping endorsed this militarist version of the China Dream numerous times. Indeed, in 2013 Beijing issued a set of four “China Dream” commemorative postage stamps that feature the PRC’s aircraft carrier, two spacecraft, and a submarine.
Once again, the China dream is part of the debate about the PRC’s “moral crisis.” The contrast between the Voice of the China Dream TV show and “China Dream, Strong Military Dream” on China’s new aircraft carrier shows the parameters of China Dream discussions: the contestants on the Voice of the China Dream TV show are involved in pursuing dreams of individual fame and fortune, while the sailors lined up on China’s aircraft carrier are acting as a face-less group to pursue the collective dream of national strength. Even so, these two versions of the China Dream are not equally powerful. Xi Jinping made it very clear that while individual dreams are important, they are only acceptable when they support the collective national dream.
The China Dream is influential in the PRC because it benefits from a robust multimedia campaign that is orchestrated by the communist party’s propaganda department. But it would be a mistake to think that it is just one more shallow slogan. The China Dream in its various forms is popular among elites and ordinary people because it touches them emotionally, expressing the heady mix of aspirations and anxieties that is often found in a rapidly changing society. Xi Jinping thus is using the China Dream to mobilize various groups for his political projects, as well as to build legitimacy in post-socialist China.
But this emotional strategy is risky. If the party-state is able to fulfill people’s dreams, then it can claim credit. But if it doesn’t fulfill 1.3 billion dreams, people will blame it.
Only time will tell if Xi Jinping’s ambitions will become a dream or nightmare for the PRC.