A man passes by a sign for the 20th party congress with the words “Forever follow the party, jointly build the Chinese dream” in Beijing on October 10. President Xi Jinping has called for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” based on reviving the ruling party’s role as an economic, social and cultural leader. Photo: AP
Fang Zihao
Fang Zihao

In ‘tianxia datong’, China has a Chinese dream that befits the times

  • The world has little use of aggressive nationalist dreams nor materialist aspirations like the American dream of upward mobility
  • China has held tianxia datong as the highest ideal since ancient times, and it’s time for the original Chinese dream to return home
China has been pursuing the dream of the “ great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” for some time. Even though the Chinese dream is an internal matter and a legitimate right of China, it might be perceived as a threat by other nations.

For instance, the broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and the United States, but it is not big enough to accommodate both the Chinese dream and the campaign of “Make America Great Again”. When two of the world’s most powerful countries become nationalist simultaneously, a Thucydides trap will be inevitable.

If other powers also adopt nationalist dreams, the world will never be at peace. Meanwhile, although the American dream of upward mobility is attainable for everyone through their actions appears applicable to all countries and does not create a contradiction between them, it is materialistic and consumerist.

The reality shows that the pursuit of upward mobility can lead to spiritual emptiness and overconsumption, leaving society indifferent to pressing social issues such as mental health problems, the widening wealth gap, mounting debt, climate change and biodiversity loss. The American dream is neither eternal nor universal.

Accordingly, China needs a new dream that goes beyond those two. It can draw inspiration from its ancient philosophy. A hundred schools of thought competed during the pre-Qin period, and among those Confucianism had the greatest impact on future generations.

The highest aspiration of Confucianism for human society is tianxia datong. Tianxia refers to “all under heaven” – that is, all the people of the world – while datong requires that everyone is in peace, love and happiness.
Students learn to make dumplings during “Confucius Day” at a Chinese cultural festival at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on December 5. Confucianism has had a great impact on Chinese culture. Photo: Xinhua

Confucianism expects obedience and loyalty to parents, superiors, officials, the emperor and the state. However, the ultimate and most important is to tianxia – one should strive to bring peace, love and happiness to the people in the world. This is what Confucianism sees as the highest dream a person should have.

Confucianism has shaped the spiritual world of the Chinese people to such an extent that to this day they are still motivated by the collective good that transcends individual interests. The existing Chinese dream is deeply rooted in this mindset.
Starting roughly two centuries ago, the Chinese people narrowed their conception of tianxia to “the nation” or “the people”. This is because China suffered severe internal fragmentation during the “ century of humiliation”, losing wars and being forced to cede territory and pay large amounts of reparations to imperialist powers in unequal treaties.
A replica of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which ended the First Opium War and among other things stipulated China’s cession of Hong Kong Island to the British as a base for their goods and ships. Photo: Robert Ng

At the time, China was so impoverished and feeble that it could not even defend the legal rights of its subjects within its borders. In pursuing the dream of tianxia datong, the Chinese people first had to attain national independence, and then seek national prosperity.

Today, China has become a global economic, trade and innovation powerhouse and an indispensable member of the international order. It has the power to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

As China’s interests have expanded globally and become deeply intertwined with international interests, the distinction between the interests of China and those of the world has blurred. Therefore, the Chinese people should start to pursue the original version of the datong ideal.

Today, datong should first require inclusivity. At a societal level, we must treat people of different races, colours, ages, sex, languages, religions, disabilities and so on equally so everyone can pursue their dreams and happiness without being hindered by their differences.


Chinese ad featuring LGBT couple wins widespread praise

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At a national level, datong requires the country to implement inclusive institutions such as economic freedom, equal political rights, rule of law and public supervision. These provide incentives and opportunities for people to study, work, invest and innovate so the economy and technology will constantly advance.
At a global level, datong requires global trade and financial systems to be more inclusive so all countries can enjoy the benefits of globalisation commensurate with their input. Global governance systems must also be more inclusive so each country’s representation is proportional to its contribution to the global order. In this manner, an increasing number of countries will contribute to a more peaceful, stable and prosperous world.

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Datong also requires sustainability. When developing its economy, human society should maintain a balance with nature. Achieving carbon neutrality and harmony with nature has become one of China’s national goals.

The sustainability of technological advancement is also desirable. Current economics literature is largely in agreement that sustained technological progress necessitates population growth.


China tackles challenges posed by its ageing population

China tackles challenges posed by its ageing population
However, fertility rates in many industrial societies – including those in East Asia, western Europe and North America – have all fallen well below replacement levels. Therefore, to achieve sustainable growth, China should explore a new route that permits stable population growth.
In the end, datong embraces global pluralism. China and other countries should not seek a global convergence of languages, cultures, religions, values or forms of democracy. The extinction of languages has been a permanent loss of human cultural DNA. Collisions of diverse cultures, religions and values frequently generate novel ideas and concepts, inspiring innovation.

Forms of democracy are tied to the local culture, history and geography, so the democracy in one nation is not necessarily adaptable to others. Diverse practices can inspire humanity’s quest for a better democracy.

China has held tianxia datong as the highest human ideal since ancient times. It is time to welcome the original Chinese dream – a better world for all – to return home.

Fang Zihao is currently studying for a PhD in economics at Koc University in Istanbul.