By Qin Xiaoying
Dreams often start from the pursuit of beautiful things and the desire for freedom from sufferings. Therefore, it is interesting to compare the Chinese dream with the American dream from this perspective, one currently a topic of heated debate among Chinese public and media and the other still an ethos of the American public after centuries.
The current Chinese generation’s knowledge and understanding of the American dream is neither abundant nor far-reaching. Younger generations have a sense of the American dream from Pretty Woman, a popular film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. For the middle-aged, William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream provides a four-decade insight into the American dream. And, for many older generations in China, their limited understanding of the American dream likely came from Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech.
The American dream and its influence in the world is an objective reality. Since the founding of the United States of America, with unique natural resources and geographical environment, creative transplantation of progressive European ideas of equality and liberty and a powerful union of individualist values, many people have made or are making their dreams come true. Even in today’s information age, successful entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft have offered great examples of how one can achieve the American dream. Therefore, it begs the question: How is the Chinese dream, as proposed by President Xi Jinping, different from the American dream?
Xi’s Chinese dream incorporates a dream that has been cherished by the Chinese people for over a century. The desire to do better and break out of the protracted state of poverty and weakness has become China’s national dream. In other words, the so-called Chinese dream actually represents a desire to be free of suffering and misfortune.
Such a mentality first appeared 170 years ago out of the Opium Wars. When Japan launched massive aggression, it soon developed into a strong awareness to save the nation and ensure its survival. For a civilization of several millennia and with high self-esteem, the bullying and humiliation suffered in the 19th and 20th centuries has become an internal wound suffered by the whole nation. In this way, the Chinese dream is first of all a collective concept where a rich country and strong army are paramount. Such a collective appeal and vision is quite different from the individualist values of the American dream.
As the Chinese dream is distinctly collective and involves the nation as a whole, it naturally embodies bolder and clearer moves in diplomatic and military fields as well as in overall national strength. The dream may be disaggregated into a diplomatic dream, a strong army dream and a (growing) national strength dream. In his frequent diplomatic activities this year, Xi stressed again and again that China and the world were interrelated and interdependent, demonstrating an apparent hope for changing the irrational international economic order. His warning against disturbance in regional situations and world peace out of “selfish interest” shows China’s increasing sense of responsibility in international affairs and can be seen as an expression of the diplomatic dream. Furthermore, the announcement that over 40 military exercises of various kinds will be held this year is the most direct proof of the military or strong army dream.
Some people may wonder whether the endeavor to realize the Chinese dream with a strong collective characteristic of the whole nation would turn into a threat to the outside world. This may be an unarticulated doubt haunting many Western analysts and media. However, Xi has actually given his answer to it. According to him, the Chinese dream can only be realized by seeking China’s own path. Where is this path? It has been trodden with over 30 years of reform and opening up, through profound lessons from the past 170 years and on the basis of the five millennia of Chinese civilization. Just as a person’s DNA does not change over a lifespan, the nation’s code of survival does not easily alter. For China, a country that has traditionally found self-restraint a virtue and never engaged in expansion or pursued hegemony, the historical trajectory cannot be changed.
The Chinese dream is neither Bismarck’s blood and iron policy, nor the Yamato nation’s greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere, nor “the sun never sets on the British Empire” type. The dream for a reinvigorated stronger nation is ultimately a dream in pursuit of happiness. In this sense, the Chinese dream and the American dream indeed have similar objectives achieved by different paths.
Qin Xiaoying is a Research Scholar with the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies. This article appeared at China-US Focus and is reprinted with permission.