BEIJING — Deng Xiaoping had “reform and opening up” and Hu Jintao had “harmonious society.” Now Xi Jinping has the “Chinese Dream.”
China’s new president coined the slogan last November, within weeks of taking power, at an exhibition called “The Road Toward Renewal” at Beijing’s National Museum of China about the century of humiliations China suffered at the hands of the West and Japan. In repurposing the better-known concept of the American Dream, Xi was stamping his mark on China’s aspirations to become a superpower.
Since then the notion has gained traction. In a single week recently, People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, mentioned the Chinese Dream on its the front page no fewer than 24 times. And there has been a fierce debate online.
What, exactly, is this dream?
According to Xi, it is about “realizing a prosperous and strong country, the rejuvenation of the nation and the well-being of the people.” According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, it means that all workers should “combine their personal dreams … with the national dream and fulfill their obligations to the country.”
For much of the past three decades, the personal dreams of the workers were largely material. Chinese people hoped to buy a bicycle or a television, move from the countryside to the city and provide their only child with a good education.
Today the millions who belong to the urban middle class hope for more than just basic economic goods. They think about the environment and having a political say and cultivating their spirituality. Buddhism is in vogue; Christianity is growing fast — so fast that, by some accounts, there are now more Christians in China than members of the Communist Party.
But never mind all that. If Xi’s Chinese Dream is a deliberately vague notion, designed to mean anything anyone wants, the limits of its ambiguity must nonetheless be determined from the top down.
Some of my Chinese friends call it an ineffectual magic wand (wield it but nothing happens), and on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter — over which the state holds less control than it would like — many mock it as Communist Party propaganda nonsense. But even a concept that is largely empty is worthy of censorship.
The Communist Party won’t tolerate interpretations of the Chinese Dream that cut against its agenda. Last month the nationalist Global Times published an article entitled “Debunking 10 Misconceptions of the Ideal of the Chinese Dream.” The piece said that the Chinese Dream was not about China trying to increase its soft power, that it was not about abandoning the communist ideal and that it was not a fantasy about constitutionalism, human rights or democracy.
The American Dream celebrates individualism: work hard and you will reap the rewards. But the Chinese Dream seems to celebrate the collective state: work hard and China will reap the benefits.
Beware those who disagree with that interpretation. In January the envelope-pushing Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend planned to publish an article entitled “The Chinese Dream: A Dream of Constitutionalism” that advocated a separation of powers. Censors cut the parts referring to constitutionalism and changed the title to “The Chinese Dream Is Nearer to Us Than Ever Before.” The Communist Party already controls much of the reality in China; now it wants to control its people’s dreams.
The people can tell. And in discussions about state meddling, Internet users have started to adapt their vocabulary to Xi’s. According to the China Media Project, the word “harmonized,” a sarcastic euphemism for censorship, is being supplanted. For example: If this post were published in China, it would very likely be “dreamed away.”
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore