Dream on? China's national slogan of rejuvenation seeds individual goals

China has lifted 500 million people out of poverty in 40 years and its leaders are promoting a 'Chinese dream' of glory. But for many ordinary Chinese that dream is personal. 

Ng Han Guan/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping greets guests attending the opening of the 2015 Global Poverty Reduction and Development Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 16, 2015.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping took power exactly three years ago, he unveiled a “Chinese dream” of national and individual rejuvenation.  The dream signaled a bright ideal of a better life and appealed to a vast, emerging middle class.

The phrase “Chinese dream,” appeared 24 times on the front page of China’s main state-run newspaper at that time. Three years later Xi and Chinese officials continue to refer to it as a galvanizing concept.

While the “American dream” often refers to a satisfying life of comfort, Xi’s dream goes further by framing a path to global economic success under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. 

“One can do well only when one’s country and nation do well,” Xi said when he first outlined his vision in 2012 at a National Museum exhibit. Dubbed the “Road to Revival,” the exhibit highlighted China’s recovery after decades of “humiliation” under colonial rule; it also hinted at Xi's priorities as the country's incoming leader.

Three years on, Xi's bid to draw ordinary Chinese into a great idea of national strength and prosperity has been internalized in new ways. However, for many the dream represents personal aspirations over the national ambition that Xi has lauded. 

“I set my own goals a long time ago, said Liu Zhun, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who is launching a project to help nongovernmental organizations post information online. “I’m not against the China dream, I just don’t need it.”  

Xi and Mao

Xi, who has consolidated power faster than any predecessor since Mao Zedong, also ties the dream to his efforts at rooting out corruption in the ruling party. His crackdown has won public support but also elbowed out potential political rivals.

Guo Linlin, a communications and journalism student at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, views Xi’s message as “successful government propaganda,” adding that she's more focused on her own post-graduate career. “I agree with the whole dream, but I have my own things to do,” she says.

China’s modern transformation, to be sure, has delivered on big dreams. Over the last four decades, it has lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty, according to the World Bank, and become the largest contributor to global economic growth. Millions of ordinary Chinese can now send their kids to American schools, shop in South Korea, and buy German cars.

And Beijing wields global influence. It’s building ports and railroads from Africa to Southeast Asia, emphasizing territorial claims in the South China Sea, and founded an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that could eventually compete with the World Bank.

China’s military is stronger than ever, a point Xi emphasized in September with an extensive parade of weaponry through Tiananmen Square. Xi recently made his first state visits to the United States and to Britain; he received a 21-gun salute at the White House and slept at Buckingham Palace in London. 

Cracks in the concrete?

But that concrete image shows cracks. Economic growth has slowed to its lowest level in 25 years. The government bungled its intervention into a stock market crash this summer and jolted world markets with a devaluation of the country’s currency.

While China continues to grow faster than almost every major economy, slogans do not make up for faltering prospects.

“I’m absolutely worried, but I have to move on because I have to make a living,” said Zhou Min, who runs a steel distributing company in Wuhan, a provincial capital in central China. She will make no profit this year.

Ms. Zhou views the slowdown as temporary. But she’s also watching the business her father-in-law built erode. 

Zhou respects the country’s growing power, but doesn’t spend much time thinking about it. “I don’t have any Chinese dream, but only my own dream,” she says.

Flexible concept

Banners draped across apartment buildings and overpasses in China still proclaim Xi's slogan. A poster put up by a safety bureau in Qingdao reads, “Security dream, Chinese dream.”

An advertisement on the popular microblogging site Weibo says, “Learn Chinese pen craft, promote our Chinese dream.” The English website version of Xinhua, the state news agency, gives the dream an entire section.

“The official Chinese dream is a very flexible concept,” says Ding Xueliang, professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “You can put anything inside.”

And yet Liu Ahan has never heard of it. “It sounds like something that hasn’t been realized,” says the 24-year-old, glancing around the Beijing convenience store where he operates his car rental company.

Three years into Xi’s leadership, Chinese register roughly the same concerns as they did when he took power, according to a survey conducted this spring by the Pew Research Center. About 77 percent of respondents said they were better off than five years ago, compared to 70 percent in 2012 who said similar things. As before, many worry about  corrupt officials, pollution, income inequality and food safety.

Well-being also frames the Chinese dream for Chen Tilu, a civil servant from Jinan, a city in the eastern coastal province of Shandong.

He endorses national stability and strength, but also medical insurance for his aging parents and a fulfilling career for his daughter, who studies at Princeton University. “I still have faith,” he says.  

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