When China’s leader, Xi Jinping, visited the U.S. in late September, he gave a speech to a VIP business crowd in Seattle in which he repeated his favorite trope, the “Chinese Dream,” and claimed that it paralleled the American Dream. That may have helped his audience identify with him. But the truth is that the Chinese Dream, in Xi’s conceptualization, differs from many others, including the American one.
Xi’s Chinese Dream is protean. He associates it with different things at different times in different places. At its core, though, is a vision of national rejuvenation. Xi makes no secret of wanting to see China assume a position of international centrality, as well as to see it modernize while revering its classical traditions.
He is deeply concerned with presenting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as completing, under his watch, a surge to global prominence and strength that had its roots in the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 under Mao Zedong, then stalled, only to undergo a rebirth 30 years later under Deng Xiaoping. In the story the CCP tells, which is partly rooted in facts but given hyperbolic and nationalistic twists, from the 1840s to the 1940s China experienced a century of humiliation, the memory of which still stings and should serve as a reminder to all of what should never happen again. As textbooks, newscasts, speeches and documentary films reiterate, in those decades, China was laid low. Once independent, it was bullied by other countries. Once rich, it became poor. Once a place that Western thinkers like Voltaire admired for its inventions and ideas, it became a place that forgot its traditions and only sought answers in foreign creeds.
Mao, in this tale, made China independent again. Deng oversaw an economic recovery. His successors kept improving living conditions and rekindled a sense of pride in China’s ancient thinkers and past glories. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which began with a quote by Confucius and ended with images of moon shots, provided a powerful visual sense of a national revival. Xi then took charge and summed it up with talk of a dream coming true under a powerful government’s firm guidance. Dream talk is now accompanied by images of a China that is high tech and modern (cue the footage of glistening fast trains), yet in touch with its past (cue the footage of statues of Confucius).
The American Dream, while also far from uniform, has a different center of gravity. At its core are tales of individuals and families bettering their situations through their own efforts. The kind of clinging to traditions and strengthening of the state that Xi extols is sometimes seen as more likely to prevent rather than aid U.S. Dreamers.
True, Xi sometimes refers, as he did in Seattle, to individual and family betterment being part of the Chinese Dream. But he presents the state as a natural ally and a crucial facilitator of this process—something that is reinforced whenever reference is made to the CCP lifting millions out of poverty, rather than emphasizing that poor people worked to pull themselves out of it. In contrast, for Americans to pursue their dream, the government may need to get out of their way.
Then, too, the melting-pot aspect of the standard narrative of the American Dream makes it seem natural to suggest that to move forward will mean questioning the ways of ancestors. The Chinese Dream, however, promotes xiao, the Confucian virtue of filial piety, as an essential element, and Xi stresses reverential study of Chinese classics.
This wasn’t always so. In Diary of a Madman, the acclaimed 1918 short story by Lu Xun, a writer whom Mao insisted was the best that modern China had produced, the fetish for filial respect and memorizing the classics is presented as a deadening thing. Long before zombie attacks became popular in dystopian shows and films, Lu Xun wrote of Confucian obsessions with hierarchies, including men standing above women and the old needing to always be revered by the young, as cannibalistic practices. It was, he asserted in his famous tale, as though the horrific command “people eat people” were secretly inserted between each line of the Confucian classics.
Other progressive intellectuals of the day joined with him in insisting that rigid reverence for elders and adherence to classical precepts meant that there was no room for the creativity the country needed, for the personal fulfillment that individual Chinese desired. The Chinese Dream they embraced, without using that term, was of choosing what was most appealing from all cultures and traditions. They were patriots, in the sense of loving the community of which they were part and wanting to see it flourish, and some took bold actions to express this through protests similar in some ways to those that rocked and excited Hong Kong a year ago.
Mao and other early leaders of the CCP embraced Lu Xun’s critique of reverence for tradition, rallying around a robustly cosmopolitan magazine called New Youth, founded 100 years ago and in which “Diary of a Madman” ran. Once in power, they worked to purge China of the influence of Confucius. Only recently has Beijing diverged from that critical appraisal of the classical legacy, while unfortunately retaining mostly just one key element of an imported creed: the Leninist obsession on the need for a strong and disciplined party to call the shots.
Dreams are often formed in opposition to nightmares. For many in the West, nightmares have often been rooted in the horror of states that have grown too strong, as in Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. In the same mid-century period when those books were written, the most important Chinese counterpart, Lao She’s Cat Country, told of a Martian community, representing China, whose members suffered a declining quality of life and invasions due to government division and weakness.
The Chinese state today is robust, yet the country's leaders won't let fears of its being precariously weak die a natural death. If only they would. Then there would be space not just for their dreams but the often different ones of many individual Chinese.