An aspiring China

Alice Wu says defining the Chinese dream involves nothing short of redefining the substance of a country beloved of its people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 2:37am


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Renaissance is making a comeback, and even Alexis de Tocqueville is enjoying something of a renaissance in China, where his book, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, has become a best-seller. And with Xi Jinping cementing his "China dream" in his first address as president, it's only time before Tocqueville's Democracy in America will be flying off the shelves, too. As vague as Xi has allowed his dream of a Chinese renaissance to be, it has raised a lot of expectations, and sometimes fear.

Whether Xi's dream complements or jars with the American dream, we'll have to wait and see. For all the rhetoric about "Chinese exceptionalism", it remains unclear whether Xi was claiming uniqueness or superiority, a combination of both, or neither.

American exceptionalism has come to mean being "above" the rest of the world. It's the reason for US intervention abroad, whereas Tocqueville, with whom the term originated, simply defined it as the conditions, circumstances and position of the American people being unique, and hence, its inappropriateness to be a standard for the rest of the world.

Will Xi's Chinese exceptionalism be just a remix of the country's old tune - one that insists on being different, acting differently and being treated differently? Or is it a claim to superiority, even world dominance? The same old "we're not going to intervene" China would disappoint the world; but an overly assertive, tyrannical China would make many parts of the world hyperventilate.

But instead of conjuring images of a fire-breathing dragon, it is probably safer to assume Xi has just been hard at work, examining what needs fixing, and reading Tocqueville. A lot of work remains, hence Xi's calls for party reforms, the weeding out of corruption, and moulding a bureaucracy that works to make its people's pursuit of happiness easier, not harder. While The Old Regime and the French Revolution may have shed light on the need for Xi and his new colleagues to address growing social discontent, let's hope Democracy in America will, in time, also inspire.

In the book, a section on "Why the Americans show themselves so restive in the midst of their well-being" talks of why, even when the country and its citizens are prospering, "agitation [exists] in the very midst of their abundance".

Prosperity, as Xi's predecessors understood it, is not enough. It may well be that Xi's dream calls for a nation genuinely loved by its people. And it's going to have to begin with serious reforms in basic things like food safety.

Xi's call for unity is what Tocqueville would prescribe in dealing with the sort of individualism he is a critic of. "People's yearning for a good and beautiful life", in Xi's words, is universal enough a desire for anyone to understand and not feel threatened by, and that dream may be Xi's attempt to rally people towards a common goal. But it also means the people must be given a seat at his table.

As Xi told Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the key for governance lies in implementation. The same applies for the Chinese dream. And managing expectations will make this dream easier to attain.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA