Chasing the 'Chinese Dream'

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Beijing's new leaders aspire to international greatness. Ordinary Chinese just want access to untainted baby formula.

RTR3B825-615.jpg(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Since China unveiled the new Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the country's Web users have been paying close attention to the new elite group of leaders who will set the country's agenda for the next decade.

A recent speech that Mr. Xi Jinping, China's new paramount leader, delivered during a tour to a museum exhibition called the "Road to Revival" has garnered wide online attention because of its mention of the "Chinese Dream." In his speech, Xi defined the "Chinese Dream" as "achieving the great revival of the Chinese nation." But what does this "dream" mean to ordinary Chinese?

Defining the "Chinese Dream"

On Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging services, "Chinese Dream" quickly became one of the hottest topics. But many users were critical of Xi's choice of words. For example, @长话短说 wrote: "'Chinese Dream' appears on television all the time, but I still don't understand; what is the so-called 'Chinese Dream' really about? Is it about making 1.3 billion Chinese people help one organization or one person to fulfill this dream, or, is it about keeping 1.3 billion Chinese daydreaming? [My] research result indicates that the latter is more convincing: keeping 1.3 billion people in a dreamlike state while sending all your children and relatives to the United States to pursue the 'American Dream!'"

Others are more optimistic. @TORO麦子 wrote: "Believe it or not, our society is changing. ...Our new Number One [Xi Jinping] is travelling light with smaller entourages; a large number of corrupt officers have been fired; all these facts may seem trivial for people who believe firmly that our society is incorrigible. But I believe change is happening. Soon people will know the power of the 'Chinese Dream.'"

Many Web users chose to define their own versions of the Chinese Dream by talking about their hopes and wishes for the next decade. Zhou Hongyi (@ 周鸿祎), chairman of Chinese software company Qihoo360, wrote a comment re-posted over 18,000 times, which read: "I hope the next ten years will not be a time when people compete based on family wealth and connections; one's 'background' will be mentioned less. I hope everyone will be able to achieve his/her dream as long as they are hardworking, smart, and dare to take risks. I hope people will have opportunities to work at jobs that they truly love, rather than for the love of money. I hope all these hopes are not daydreams, but achievable Chinese Dreams."

Liu Shengjun (@刘胜军改革), a columnist for the Financial Times' Chinese portal and Caixin.com, offered more specifics in his top ten resolutions for the upcoming ten years:

1. [People] won't have to buy reliable infant milk powder abroad. 2. [People] will be able to purchase safe food in large super markets. 3. White collar workers no longer have to live as "housing mortgage slaves." 4. Pollution will not worsen. 5. The wealth gap will not widen. 6. The rich will no longer want to immigrate to foreign countries. 7. The number of "naked officials" [officials who send family and money abroad and prepare to make their own getaway] will decrease. 8. The stock market will be a place for people to create wealth, not a black hole that drains money. 9. Everyone will be able to get equal opportunity without relying on family connections. 10. Remarkable progress will be made in restraining the misuse of power.

It's Not All About the Money

Among all the hopes and wishes, one thing was missing: Money. Among the posts analyzed by Tea Leaf Nation, mentions of economic growth could scarcely be found. Instead, Web users focused on improving their quality of life, emphasizing safe food, affordable housing, a better natural environment, equal access to education, and social justice.

While China has created an economic miracle in the past three decades, there is scant evidence that the Chinese people are, on average, any happier, according to an analysis of survey data by Richard A. Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California. If anything, they are less satisfied than in 1990, despite a seventeen-fold increase in real per-capita GDP during that span. Decreasing satisfaction is most evident in the least wealthy third of the population. Satisfaction among Chinese in even the upper third has risen only moderately. More Chinese are feeling less happy because of growing income disparity, a deteriorating natural environment, and the proliferation of other social problems.

Xi Jinping is right about one thing: China today needs its own dream, a vision of the nation's future to inspire its people and distinguish China on the world stage. But the meaning of the "Chinese Dream" may be different for the country's officialdom than for her people. For the Party, the foremost goal of this Chinese Dream is defined byformer president Hu Jintao's parting report at the 18th Party Congress: "Continuing to release and develop productive forces." But for individual Chinese, it more often means a better quality of life.

The key to achieving the Chinese Dream is to ease, if not completely overcome, the friction between individual happiness and nationwide economic growth, ensuring that the massive wealth China has created actually makes its billion-plus creators happier.

Xi Jinping therefore is facing two challenges different from those of his predecessor. He needs to ensure that the Communist Party continues to rule--despite awakened citizen and netizen pressure for reform--and that requires faster growth to keep the population satisfied with Party control. But he also needs to manage all the downsides of that growth.


This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

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Ellen Li is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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