What does the 'Chinese dream' really mean?

Patrick Mendis examines how the Communist Party has adapted the slogan that encapsulates America's national ethos and considers how the so-called 'Chinese dream' might be realised

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 2:59am

Since the United States' founding in 1776, Americans have considered it an exceptional nation. Chinese, too, view themselves as exceptional with their connection to the celestial empire. Chinese "exceptionalism", however, diverges from the American concept. The political ideology of the US resonates with the Enlightenment values of democracy, freedom and individual rights. Meanwhile, China strives to preserve and perfect its exceptional nature based on the Confucian model of virtues.

These virtues are fundamental to a good society. The US founding fathers admired the Chinese civilisation and Confucian ethics. In his book, The Dragon and the Eagle: The Presence of China in the American Enlightenment, Alfred Owen Aldridge wrote that Benjamin Franklin said "Chinese are regarded as an ancient and highly civilised nation" from which Americans might learn in forming their own civilisation.

For more than 100 years, between the mid-18th and 19th centuries, Sino-US relations prospered, especially through trade links. In essence, the two nations enjoyed a love affair, which was long forgotten by the succeeding generations.

With the new leadership in Beijing, a great revival seems to be under way. While visiting the Road Towards Renewal exhibition at the National Museum, Xi Jinping talked of the "ultimate great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation". This, he said, was "the Chinese nation's greatest dream in modern history".

The phrase "Chinese dream" sparked a scandal on New Year's Day when an editorial in the Southern Weekly was censored. The original text - reportedly titled "China's dream: the dream of constitutionalism" - was revised to read: "We are closer than ever before to our dreams." Instead of calling for constitutionalism to protect individual rights, the heavily revised editorial praised party policies.

So, what is the Chinese dream? Is it the government's interpretation of moderate prosperity for all, or is it the middle-class idea of greater civil rights and freedoms?

To determine whether the government can achieve these dual objectives will require a frank look at China's past. The exhibits at the National Museum depict an idealised view of ancient history, showing Chinese ethnic groups pulling together to create "brilliant achievements" and overlooking the tragic policies of the early period under communist rule.

To advance China's "peaceful rise", the leadership must confront challenges primarily in economic development and national unity. In this regard, both Chinese history and its people matter most: the history is anchored in the Confucian civilisation, while the people are inspired by the prospects of better living conditions envisioned as part of the "Chinese dream".

For the leadership, the Chinese dream involves a socialist utopian vision that can only be realised through the party meeting the ever-growing material and cultural needs of its people. China is constantly reinventing itself, and so is the United States. They are distinctive in contrasting but parallel ways. Both have an idea of manifest destiny, and both are continental powers with political and cultural influence that extends far beyond their borders.

With this in mind, Beijing leaders have consciously borrowed from the US and purposefully repositioned the "American Dream" as the "Chinese dream".

The "American dream", rooted in the Declaration of Independence, proclaims "all men are created equal" and that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights". Thomas Jefferson, a founding father, promoted "unalienable rights" as the "fundamental natural rights" of mankind to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; indicating the belief that the material and cultural needs of the people must be satisfied first before considering political liberty and spiritual happiness.

To achieve these ends, Alexander Hamilton - Jefferson's philosophical rival - devised an ingenious strategy that entailed a strong manufacturing base, a national banking system, a centralised federal government and an export-led economic scheme protected by the navy.

Bridging the camps, James Madison invented a system of checks and balances among the three independent branches of government. Madison hoped Americans could achieve Jefferson's democratic freedoms through Hamilton's economic and trade policies.

This is part of the philosophical difference between China and America: for the latter, a political "process" matters more in promoting Jeffersonian world views democratically. For China, political "outcomes" have greater significance.

For China, the traditional Confucian structure that invoked ideals of perfect human virtue for harmony must incorporate the rule of law for the modern era.

Although the rule of law has been codified in the Chinese constitution, a Confucian DNA is rooted in traditional mindsets as a superior system. Chinese leaders have often referred to the process of reform as "perfecting", a notion of improvement closely associated with virtue. In practice, this alone won't yield harmony between those who govern and the governed.

For example, to resolve widespread corruption, accountability and transparency issues, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the location of virtuous self from the individual to the rule of law implemented by government. This will allow all Chinese to see the government as the enabler of their own pursuit of virtue and liberty, and will forge a national unity that is stronger than one grounded in the Confucian culture of natural law for harmony.

Unlike Confucius, Madison - father of the US constitution - maintained people have a limited capacity to act virtuously and used the concept of checks and balances as a second-best alternative to virtuous superiority. He argued for an impartial judiciary and envisioned a system of legislative and judiciary branches working separately and competitively.

To achieve the ultimate Confucian objective - a virtuous society - America has favoured the rule of law over Confucian virtues. Yet, America has acknowledged the greatness of Confucius through a trio of ancient lawgivers - Moses flanked by Confucius and Solon - on the monument to "Justice, the Guardian of Liberty" on the US Supreme Court Building. The question is: will China eventually become a democratic nation with an American dream? For leaders in Beijing, the greatest prospect is to rekindle the Sino-American love affair.

Patrick Mendis is a distinguished senior fellow at George Mason University's School of Public Policy. This article is drawn from his forthcoming book, The Pacific Drama: A Peaceful War between the Chinese Dream and the American Destiny. He will deliver a lecture on "The Future of Sino-American Relations and Obama 2" at Baptist University today