Is the China Dream the next American Dream?

Notes from Underground

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I have a dream. Gatsby has a dream. So does Xi Jinping.

While watching “The Great Gatsby,” I couldn’t help but think about the ideal of the American Dream, that marvelous little cloud that hangs above us all. For a long time, however, that cloud was known to rest above our heads and our heads only. Now, China too wants to be under our sky.

As early as last November, Xi Jinping, the new head of the Communist Party of China, started to popularize a slogan called the China Dream. Thanks to social media and Xi’s unfailing persistence to rehash that phrase, the China Dream has began to stick.

As if the name was not obvious enough, Xi precisely defined the China Dream as the act of “realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation.” This is not about the people’s welfare; it’s about the state’s (i.e., the CCP’s and the CCP leaders’) welfare.

Although the similarity is undeniable, the lack of focus in the individual makes the China Dream quite different from the American Dream. In “The Epic of America,” James Adams defined the American Dream as “a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.” Going back to the roots, the American Dream encompasses our fathers’ belief in that “all men are created equal … with certain inalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In short, it is a dream that prioritizes the individuals and their rights to a good life, regardless of their backgrounds.

In contrast, the China Dream’s origin is dangerously nationalistic. Back in 2010, a Chinese colonel, Liu Mingfu, published “China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era,” urging China to overtake the United States’ position as the top military power. Though popular, “China Dream” was pulled from the shelves due to its controversial nature. After Xi mentioned the term, however, the book was promptly restored to the “Recommended” section. As if the connection between Mingfu’s book and Xi’s dream wasn’t clear enough, the latter directly associated that dream with the armed forces in December: “To achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and strong military.”

Furthermore, definitive words like “renewal” and “revival” are highly problematic. By evoking national victimhood, the China Dream stirs up collective emotions that could very well turn vengeful and belligerent. Already, many Chinese bloggers are asking the government to use force against Japan to settle the dispute over the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands. At the moment, China is engaged in three-front conflicts with India, Japan and the Philippines. A resurgent nation is an emotional nation, and an emotional nation is a pernicious nation.

Arguably, Gatsby’s hamartia is his desire to change the past. This desire deviates from the American Dream, that undulating cloud of hope that promises us an opportunity to break from and rise above our past (e.g., the lives of Ben Franklin, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). If Xi truly wants to empower his people, then he should learn from Gatsby’s mistake. Instead of beating “ceaselessly back into the past” of an ancient empire, he should think of what matters most now and forevermore for China: the Chinese people.



Anh Thai ponders about insidious world problems in her Tuesday blog. Contact Anh Thai at [email protected]