The Chinese Dream

Augustine Haam

The Chinese Dream

by Augustine Haam

Abstract

Xi Jinping’s first speech as the president of China in 2013 revolved around the concept of a 中国梦 (zhōngguó mèng), the Chinese Dream. He claimed that “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a dream of the whole nation, as well as of every individual…The Chinese dream, after all, is the dream of the people”. Xi Jinping’s request was directed towards China’s youth, a youth that is gradually drifting from conservative Chinese traditions and finding themselves with unprecedented access to achieve their hopes and aspirations at the epicenter of the world’s fastest growing economy. While the Communist Party seeks to utilize the energy of the youth, they seek also to stymie it in areas that it deems threatening to its own existence. Throughout my seven and a half week stay in China, I was privileged enough to speak with those actually experiencing this shift. With Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition as my guide, I slowly discovered that regardless of economic or educational backgrounds, the Chinese Dream set by the Chinese Communist Party and older generations does not match up with the Chinese Dreams of the youth of China. Faced with unprecedented access to wealth and information, a vast number of Chinese youth opt to chase the latter. As those younger Chinese citizens delve deeper and learn more about the world outside of their own, they have realized that it is not wealth, or military strength, or national reputation that they yearn for, but rather a legitimate adherence to rule of law and the justice that follows it.

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Photo by Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images A billboard in the Hebei Province featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping with the slogan “Realizing one Chinese Dream”

Xi Jinping’s first speech as the president of China in 2013 revolved around the concept of a 中国梦 (zhōngguó mèng), the Chinese Dream. He claimed that “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a dream of the whole nation, as well as of every individual…The Chinese dream, after all, is the dream of the people”.[1]

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Photo by: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images Construction workers pass a billboard in Beijing with the caption “My Chinese Dream”

Xi Jinping’s request was directed towards China’s youth, a youth that is gradually drifting from conservative Chinese traditions and finding themselves with unprecedented access to achieve their hopes and aspirations at the epicenter of the world’s fastest growing economy. While the Communist Party seeks to utilize the energy of the youth, they seek also to stymie it in areas that it deems threatening to its own existence. Throughout my seven and a half week stay in China, I was privileged enough to speak with those actually experiencing this shift. With Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition as my guide, I slowly discovered that regardless of economic or educational backgrounds, the Chinese Dream set by the Chinese Communist Party and older generations does not match up with the Chinese Dreams of the youth of China. Faced with unprecedented access to wealth and information, a vast number of Chinese youth opt to chase the latter. As those younger Chinese citizens delve deeper and learn more about the world outside of their own, they have realized that it is not wealth, or military strength, or national reputation that they yearn for, but rather a legitimate adherence to rule of law and the justice that follows it.

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Photo Credit: Augustine Haam
A BMW parked along an ancient Beijing Hutong

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Photo Credit: Augustine Haam
A Maserati parked on a Beijing street

In 1992 Deng Xiaoping instructed China to “Let a part of the population get rich first” with the intention that the rest of the population would eventually follow to prosperity. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reign, China’s economy has developed into the second largest in the world. The poverty rate has dropped from 85% of China’s population in 1981 to 33.1% in 2008. There is estimated to be over two million millionaires (in USD) residing in China, second only to the United States’ seven million millionaires. There are 213 billionaires in China, again second only to the United States’ 1,700. According to a 2013 report from global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, “…just two percent of China’s population account for about a third of the world’s luxury consumption – everything from cosmetics and private jets to jewelry, watches and handbags”,[2] and it shows. In just my seven weeks in Beijing I have seen more Maserati’s, Bentleys, Range Rovers, BMW’s than I can remember ever seeing back home.

But, while China’s overall gross domestic product (GDP) ranks second, its GDP per capita ranks only 89th in the world, lower than the global average and behind countries such as Botswana, Turkmenistan, and the Dominican Republic. The 30% of China’s population living in poverty, though far below 1981’s levels, still account for over 400 million Chinese. China’s poverty line is defined by its own government to be 1.00 USD a day per person, of which 82 million live below.[3] The United States’ own official federal poverty line is set at 17.00 USD a day per person, of which about 45 million Americans live underneath. The United States considers “extreme poverty” to be the 3 million Americans living at under 2.00USD a day per person.

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Photo: Uncredited
Two homeless Chinese men outside a jewelry store

China’s transformation finds rapid development in some areas but finds others severely lacking. It has raised the hopes and dreams of hundreds of millions while simultaneously suppressing those of hundreds of millions of others. China’s future, as is any country’s future, rests on its youth. My quest was to determine how the youth sought to utilize this growth to their advantage to advance not only China but their own futures. At the same time, it is important to observe how older generations alongside the Communist Party views the Chinese Dream and how the seek to utilize this growth for their own desires. With the two directives of prosperity given by two of China’s most influential leaders present a break from certain traditional Chinese values: 集体主义(jítǐ zhǔyì) /个人主义(gèrén zhǔyì), or collectivism and individualism. This in itself represents a break from younger and older generations. Interview questions derived from this break are: What are your dreams for yourself (individual)? What are your dreams for China (collective)? When older generations of Chinese (aged 50+) were approached and asked what their individual and collective dreams were, their responses clearly followed the tenets of 集体主义,collectivism. Their individual dreams focused around their children and grandchildren, wishes of improved livelihoods and happiness.

Not necessarily for the sake of their children and grandchildren, however. They all expressed a desire for their children’s prosperity to contribute to China’s overall prosperity. With the success of their children and grandchildren, so too comes an increase in China’s national pride. This desire fluidly transitioned into their answer on what they wanted for China’s future. They unilaterally expressed wishes for China’s growth in international standing, to be understood and respected by the world and the West in particular. To the older generations of Chinese, individual dreams simply serve to advance the dreams of China as a whole. The importance of the collective far outstrips the importance of the individual. In fact, unchecked individual ambition is in their opinion dangerous. It is as the two-century-old collection of philosphopical ideas, the 淮南子(Huáinán zi) warned, to “keep powerful positions out of the hands of the ambitious, just as one keeps sharp tools out of the hands of the foolish”. Self-serving individuals are viewed with contempt by the older generations. It is, as they say, 出头的椽子烂得快 (chūtóu de chuánzi làn dé kuài). The rafters that jut out rot quicker. China is a ship sailing towards prosperity, those with unbridled ambition will only serve to threaten the integrity of that ship, and will be the first to be weeded out.

Inequality

Photo by: Bobby Yip/Reuters
A Chinese woman bikes by a Ferrari

This view is in stark contrast to the prevailing opinion of China’s youth (aged 24 and younger). Not having experienced the past horrors of the Cultural Revolution or even the more recent horrors such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacres, this new generation of Chinese citizens were able to focus on advancing their own futures. When asked what those future plans entailed, they answered, “To find success in my dream career (English Teacher, News Editor, Restaurant Owner), to own my own house, to have my own car, to have my own happy family.” The word “own” is the epitome of individualism, and this generation is increasingly coming to terms that their dreams may be on the selfish side. Their individual dream spoke nothing of a collective dream for China, and when asked what their collective dream was they answered: Justice.

With over half a billion followers, the best-selling novelist Han Han is also China’s most popular blogger and was honored in Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people.[4] He claimed, “Young people [in poor places] don’t care about literature or art or film or freedom or democracy, but they know they need one thing: justice. What they see around them is unfair”.[5] On New Year’s day in 2013, the Southern Weekly newspaper of Guandong Province released an issue with the headlining article titled, “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism”, which stated “Only if constitutionalism is realized, and power effectively checked, can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently”. Party censors quickly altered the message to instead state “We are now closer to our dream than ever”.[6] Political dissidents, activists, and lawyers are routinely jailed under false chargers for unknown stretches of time. Corruption in the Communist Party runs rampant from local provincial branches all the way to the China’s National People’s Congress, where the wealthiest 70 members possess a combined net worth of 85 billion USD, a direct result of corruption and bribery.[7] In my own experiences, I note,

“Through the streets of Wudaokou in Beijing, I observe countless young Chinese men and women sporting Western clothes with mistranslated English, drinking Western liquor and enjoying Western music, scurrying to their next destination, ignoring the also countless homeless sleeping just underneath their feet. As I sit enjoying an Italian gelato shop frequented by Westerners and Chinese youth alike, a young Chinese girl likely no older than three or four wanders in with her mother in old ragged clothes to peer through the glass screen at all the flavors. As I walk off the bullet train, I share in the discomfort of the other Chinese passengers who strain to avoid making eye contact with the scores of homeless sleeping on cardboard beds throughout the station.”[8]

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Photo: Uncredited
A Chinese worker sweeps in front of an Audi

In the face of souring public opinion, Xi Jinping’s regime has taken notice and took steps in order to at the least combat corruption. However, even as some Party members are indicted, others are not. When the New York Times released an article investigating the fortunes of China’s permit Wen Jiabao and his family, a net worth of 2.7 billion USD, the New York Times in its entirety was blocked in China. Even Xi Jinping, who initiated the “Four Dishes and One Soup” campaign to combat government exuberance, was featured in a Bloomberg Business News article that set his net worth at a relatively modest 136 million USD. Bloomberg, too, was blocked.[9]

And from here we turn back to the concept of individualism versus collectivism. While the Communist Party advocates working for the good of the collective, its members have taken steps to separate themselves as individuals focused on wealth gain. To refer back, 出头的椽子烂得快. The rafters that jut out rot quicker. But the rafters jutting out are not China’s hungry youth, but the corrupt officials that claim to support them. The youth of China do not hunger for wealth or fame or power, as it can be said the government of officials do. Instead, the youth of China are clamoring for a just China. China’s youth are the ones looking to benefit the collective, where the corrupt officials are looking out for the individual. And while the tainted rafters may not be rotting out very quickly, progress is being made. To reference another Chinese idiom, 水能载舟, 亦能覆舟 (shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu). While the water can bear the boat, it can also sink it. China’s boat is dependent on the support of the public. China’s officials would do well to recall this ancient Chinese message.

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Photo by: Telegraph
A traditional Chinese junk sails towards Hong Kong

Evan Osnos observed that China reminded him most of America during its own age of transformation in the late 19th century, coined the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain and other prominent figures of the time. This came just before historian James Truslow coined the term “The American Dream” in 1931. By the time the American Dream cemented itself into the American culture, the United State of America underwent massive popular government reform. The corrupt elite of the country were struck down as the people rose up and found their justice. The world has been laid out in front of China’s youth. Wealth, power, fashion, art, information all sprawled out to be consumed. While China’s ruling classes seek to utilize this energy to advance its own agenda under the guise of a “Chinese Dream”, one cannot help but wonder if they are instead facilitating their own eventual demise as the youth chase their own dreams for justice.

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Photo by: The New Yorker
Chinese youth on their cellphones in Shanghai

Bibliography/Footnotes


[1] Zhao, Yinan. “‘Chinese Dream’ Is Xi’s Vision.” China Daily. March 18, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2015.
[2] Frank, Robert. “China’s 2% Account for Third of World Luxe Sales.” CNBC. October 17, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2015.
[3] Iaccino, Ludovica. “China: More than 82 Million People Live Below Poverty Line.” International Business Times RSS. October 16, 2014. Accessed August 6, 2015.
[4] Elegant, Simon. “The 2010 TIME 100; Han Han.” Time. April 29, 2010. Accessed August 6, 2015.
[5] Osnos, Evan. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 172.
[6] Richburg, Keith. “Chinese Journalists Mount Rare Protest over an Alleged Act of Government Censorship.” Washington Post. January 4, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2015.
[7] Hilton, Isabel. “China’s Economic Reforms Have Let Party Leaders and Their Families Get Rich.” The Guardian. October 26, 2012. Accessed August 6, 2015.
[8] Own notes
[9] Hilton, Isabel. “China’s Economic Reforms Have Let Party Leaders and Their Families Get Rich.” The Guardian. October 26, 2012. Accessed August 6, 2015.