In China Matters: Getting It Right for Australia (LaTrobe University Press), its authors Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson look at the rise of China and its impact on Australia. The two expert China-watchers take a concise look at modern China, its tensions and contradictions, and pose questions about how it might use its power and influence in a time of rapid change, and how Australia might respond.
What is the “China Dream”?: China’s leader appeals to cultural greatness
A major aim of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” is to realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Just hours after becoming CPC General Secretary in November 2012, Xi said that the Party had ‘rallied and led the Chinese people in transforming the poor and backward Old China into an increasingly prosperous and powerful New China, thus opening a completely new horizon for the great renewal of the Chinese nation’.
Xi said he understood that ordinary people aspired to good jobs, better social security, better education for their kids and a better environment. He spoke of China being a great nation with a great people; of China’s 5000-year history and its great culture; and of the unusual hardship Chinese people had suffered in the past. He acknowledged the need to resolve the problems of corruption, alienation of CPC officials from the people, and bureaucratism.
The China Dream reflects a historical yearning for wealth, power, respect and global standing. The China Dream fulfils a need to make up for lost time.
There was no mistaking his message. China’s new leader wanted to be perceived as a man who has ordinary citizens’ interests at heart; who wishes all Chinese to feel pride about belonging to a great nation with a great culture; and who wants China to become strong and respected in the family of nations. In subsequent speeches and writings attributed to Xi, he has emphasised that the China Dream and the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation entail making China strong again in every conceivable way – economically, militarily, politically, culturally, scientifically, technologically – to make sure the Chinese people do not suffer the humiliations of the past.
Do these desires resonate with Chinese people? Absolutely. The China Dream reflects a historical yearning for wealth, power, respect and global standing. The China Dream fulfils a need to make up for lost time.
Chinese people are no different from any other people in their feelings of pride for their country. Chinese wish for China to once again be a respected nation in the international community. For most Chinese that means China must be strong. The vast majority of Chinese agree with Xi’s vision – and that of the leaders before him – that China must strive to attain wealth, power and greatness.
Intermingled with understandable pride and patriotism is a legacy of victimhood. Every PRC citizen under the age of seventy was taught – and taught again – at school that Chinese people suffered horribly at the hands of outsiders – especially Japan and Western powers – during the ‘century of humiliation’, approximately from the 1840s to the 1940s, which indeed they did. They are taught that, had it not been for the Communist Party of China, the Chinese people would not have ‘stood up’ in 1949 and hundreds of millions of people would not have been lifted out of poverty and hundreds of millions more would not have moved into the ranks of the middle class. This too is a reasonable statement, though it is first and foremost the Chinese people who deserve credit for these achievements.
But, importantly, the narrative continues through adulthood. New books, articles, television programs, theatre, operas, theme parks and museum exhibitions today still send subtle or less subtle messages about the need to be vigilant so that the century of humiliation is never repeated.
When asked, ‘What does the China Dream mean?’, some Chinese people will laugh. Sometimes they laugh to hide their awkwardness or embarrassment. It might not have occurred to them to think more deeply about a slogan handed down by the Party. Chinese people have been exposed to CPC slogans from birth, so in many cases a new one merely numbs the mind. Sometimes the laugh expresses amusement: poking fun at political slogans, especially with the help of puns, is a national pastime.
Chinese citizens aspire to live in a less corrupt society in a less polluted and safer environment in which one can find a job, provide good education for one’s offspring, and trust that food is safe.
Sometimes the laugh is more of a snort. Some Chinese say the China Dream is hollow and lacks intellectual substance.
Whatever Chinese people think – or do not think – about the China Dream, they are constantly reminded that, for the China Dream to be fulfilled, all the nation’s resources will need to be harnessed. The slogan pops up in newspaper articles, radio and television programs, internet chat sites, billboards and official speeches.
But people naturally do have their own dreams.
Chinese citizens aspire to live in a less corrupt society in a less polluted and safer environment in which one can find a job, provide good education for one’s offspring, and trust that food is safe. When pressed about their ‘personal China Dream’, ordinary Chinese will say that they wish their children would live to see a more just society, one in which all citizens are treated equally under the law. Thus far, this is not what Xi Jinping’s China Dream has delivered.
Chinese people, generally speaking, are first and foremost keen to get on with their lives. Though Xi has mentioned the importance of the dreams and efforts of each individual, the China Dream calls upon Chinese citizens to make personal sacrifices in order to better the nation. The China Dream is very much a collective project led by the Party, and certainly differs in its emphasis from the American Dream which focuses on the protection of individual rights.
Here lies a great paradox, one of many in a country racing towards modernity under the leadership of a Party that wants to assert control over people’s minds. Chinese people do, in an aspirational sense, share Xi’s dream of rejuvenating the Chinese nation. But few are volunteering to put their personal goals on hold for the sake of the country – or the Party.