What Is the Chinese Dream?

The nation may have larger-than-life ambitions, but it hasn't figured out how to win over the world.

The nation may have larger-than-life ambitions, but it hasn't figured out how to win over the world.

A policeman patrols outside the Chinese Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo site (Aly Song/Reuters)

[Note: This story is adapted from James Fallows's new book, China Airborne, and published as part of an Atlantic special report.]

When I first arrived in China, I wrote the one and only "I've just arrived, and here is what I'm wondering" article that journalistic convention permits each writer on first immersion in a country. Among the questions I said I wanted to answer was, What is the Chinese dream?

Nearly six years later, I realize that it's a silly or meaningless question, since for the foreseeable future the country's ambitions will be fully satisfied by allowing hundreds of millions of people to realize their individual and family dreams. Grandparents who can live in reasonable health and security to an old age? Great. Students whose education makes the most of their abilities and who have the chance to do their best around the world? Better still. After China's centuries of seeming to move backward as a society and its more recent decades of tragedy and turmoil, the simple bourgeois comforts are much of what the modern Chinese miracle could and should provide.

But there is a way in which the question does make sense, as an expression of concern about what the rise of a "non-universal" nation will mean for the rest of the world.

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Through the centuries of Western military, technological, and economic dominance, "universalism" of some sort has been so basic a part of international relations that it barely needed to be discussed. The leaders of the French Revolution issued their Declaration of the Rights of Man -- not the rights of Frenchmen. The Declaration of Independence began, "When, in the course of human events," not "events in the colonies of North America." With varying degrees of sincerity, Western colonialists tried to create replica British, French, or American citizens in their colonies. Long before the colonial era, Christian missionaries wanted to bring people worldwide to their view of the one true universal faith.

The idea that anyone could -- and should -- "aspire" to Western standards is simultaneously the most and least admirable part of the Western tradition. Most admirable in advancing the principle that people of different origins, races, and religions should be judged and valued by the same standards. Least admirable in the gap between that principle and a discriminatory reality, and in the condescension it implied for the unfortunate non-Westerners of the world.

The best and worst parts of the American model are intensified versions of this Western universalism. In theory, anyone can become an American. Most Americans innocently, or pridefully, assume that in fact most people around the world want to become Americans, and would if they only had the chance. (And many do want exactly that.) The self-satisfaction of this view can make non-Americans roll their eyes, but it is connected to the factor that is the enduring secret of American national strength.

Modern America's power is often calculated in material terms, from the size and strength of its military to the scale of its corporate assets. But everything I have learned convinces me that these are finally reflections of the country's success in attracting and enabling human talent. That success, in turn, has depended on the fortunate interaction of many different circumstances, rules, and decisions.

For the United States these have included immigration policies that made it attractive for ambitious people to migrate and realize their ambitions within American institutions and companies. Persecuted Jews, Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese, Iranians, Ethiopians, Chinese, in periods of turmoil in their respective countries; highly motivated Indians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Russians, Nigerians, Irish, Poles, Pakistanis, and many others through the decades. At their best, the levels of America's public-education system, from grade school through Ph.D. programs, created opportunities for the ambitious. A research establishment leveraged their work for public and private benefit; an American pop culture kept renewing itself with outside stimulus until it became for better and worse the pop culture of the world.

In its pluses and its minuses, everything about this approach -- the approach that has created the world's reigning power of the moment -- is fundamentally different from the principles behind the rise of the aspirant great power, China. America's challenge is strangely conservative: Somehow it has to avoid destroying the cultural conditions that have been so important to its growth.

China's challenge is more complicated -- which, of course, doesn't mean that it is insurmountable. The country's successes over the past three decades arise mainly from allowing more and more of its people to apply ideas, ambitions, and energies in ways that benefit themselves and their families, and that build the national economy at the same time. To take the next step in its development, it will have to alter that equation in subtle but significant ways, by granting broader scope to individual ambition than has been possible through the Communist Party's decades in control. The institutions at the heart of such "soft" success have until now been areas of signal weakness for China.

At an individual level, and as an accumulation of daily interactions over the years, my experience is of the great permeability of Chinese culture. People are easy to meet, to get to know, to laugh or argue with. And in its vastness, today's China contains people who belong to a variety of universalist faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Baha'i, and Buddhism. But in its international dealings as well as in most of its domestic operations, today's China gives more weight to duties and ethics based on personal relations than on abstract principles of how people in general should be treated. It is too pat to put the ethical system the way one Chinese friend did: "Everything for my family and friends; nothing for anyone else." But a variant of these sentiments goes through many aspects of Chinese life.

Early in my stay in Shanghai I was amused to see that the first occupant of an elevator would instantly push the "close door" button. Then, for a while, I was annoyed; ultimately I acclimated. When my wife and I had been away from China for several months and returned for a stay, my wife saw a charming young boy walking with his mother on a street in a little enclosed neighborhood. He was eating a bag of potato chips. This was itself a sign of a different trend: the obesity epidemic now affecting China. The country is already dealing with one actuarial consequence of its one-child policy of the past generation -- that its population will soon become on average so old. It is just beginning to cope with another, the long-term public-health problems, especially diabetes, coming from the rising rate of obesity in people under twenty, especially the often-favored "little emperor" boys.

As the boy finished the last chip, he simply let the bag drop from his hand, onto the sidewalk in his neighborhood. His mother briefly glanced over to see the bag's fall and kept on walking and talking with her son about something else. The instant seemed not to register, since the sidewalk where their bag sat was in no sense "theirs." Of course, moments like this happen all around the world. At that moment in China it struck me as an illustration of the reality that the consciousness of a "general" public interest is underdeveloped, compared with interest that affects individual families in the here and now -- and the country relative to other parts of the world.

The still-limited awareness of interests outside China's immediate ambitions will, I think, affect China's ability to project soft power and improve its standing. China is steadily gaining the hard power that comes from factories and finance. Its military hard power is increasing, though from an extremely low base. But lasting influence in the world has come more from soft than hard power: ideas for living, models of individual, commercial, and social life that people emulate because they are attracted rather than because they are compelled.

Soft power becomes powerful when people imagine themselves transformed, improved, by adopting a new style. Koreans and Armenians imagine they will be freer or more successful if they become Americans -- or Australians or Canadians. Young men and women from the provinces imagine they will be more glamorous if they look and act like people in Paris, London, or New York. If a society thinks it is unique because of its system, or its style, or its standards, it can easily exert soft power, because outsiders can imagine themselves taking part in that same system and adopting those same styles. But if it thinks it is unique because of its identity -- "China is successful because we are Chinese" -- the appeal to anyone else is self-limiting.

From the Chinese government's point of view, soft power has so far boiled down to using money to win other people's goodwill or acquiescence. Chinese-built roads in Africa and Latin America; Chinese investment and interaction in Europe and the United States. The public-opinion elements of the soft-power campaign have often backfired, since they have been crudely propagandistic in the fashion of the government's internal news management.

Even before the bad publicity China suffered with the jailing of Liu Xiaobo and the Jasmine crackdowns, a scholar from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Johan Lagerkvist, argued that China would likely lose more and more international support unless the government fundamentally reconceived its connections with the rest of the world. "China's internal stability/security and survival of the Communist Party will always be more important to China's leaders than the image it projects for outside consumption," he contended. A choice between maintaining domestic order and pleasing outside critics was no choice at all. "Pouring money into Chinese equivalents to CNN and Al-Jazeera won't help [without] reform initiatives," he said.

In every country, internal interests come first. With more time on the world stage, China's leaders may learn to do what their American, British, French, and other counterparts also had to learn: at least feigning awareness of the interest of mankind. China's predicament is more difficult because its emergence is so rapid, and so much is unclear about other ways in which it will change.

I am sitting in Washington, D.C., as I write these words, and I realize how different the world feels to me than when I was sitting in Beijing, or Yinchuan, or Chengdu, or Linyi, with the chaos and achievement of Chinese efforts just outside my window. From a distance, it can seem strange to think that there are limits or challenges to China's progress. The action, the sense of can-do, is so different from the political and economic paralysis of America's age of constraint.

But I know how much is in flux, and how much is at stake. It is not an evasion of analysis but a recognition of China's complexity, and the world's, to say that a wide range of outcomes is possible, and that it is worth watching very carefully signals like those I have mentioned to recalibrate our estimates. Nearly every day of these past five years -- when watching the earth being scraped away for airports or highways, when seeing apartments put up within a week and the families who used to live in the knocked-down tenements sent scrambling to other parts of town, when seeing the beggars next to the Bentleys and the security agents watching students in the Internet cafés -- I have thought to myself, How long can this go on?

And nearly every day, when seeing those same sights, I have asked myself, What is this system not capable of ? Anyone who says China is destined to succeed or fail, to open up or close down, either knows much more than I do, or much less. Anyone so sure is not willing to acknowledge the great unknowability of life in general and life in this quarter of mankind.