Former US president Richard Nixon, who resigned in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, was born to a poor family and made it to his country’s top office, having trained as a lawyer, largely by dint of his own hard work.
In his address accepting his first presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Chicago on July 28, 1960, having already served for eight years as vice president, he said: “I believe in the American dream because I’ve seen it come true in my own life.”
There is no specific definition of what the “American dream” actually is, but over the years it has come to be understood as the aspirations of the ordinary person, wherever they are from, to get ahead in the US armed only with freedom, opportunities and their achievements. Anybody in the US, so the idea goes, has the opportunity to develop as they please, to establish their own family from modest beginnings, and to move from rags to riches within three generations.
Meanwhile, new Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has recently burst onto the scene, with Beijing’s propaganda machine taking out adverts in the Washington Post proclaiming Xi’s concept of the “Chinese dream.” This new construct, purporting to place the people and the country at its very core, is the work of dictators sitting in China’s capital, forcing their own conception of a dream onto the public.
The Chinese dream of the princelings political elite is but a rehash of the motto of modernizers in the late Qing Dynasty — “make the country wealthy and the military powerful” (富國強兵) — albeit without explicitly using the word “military.” Xi’s “resurgence of the Chinese people” (中華民族的復興) retains traces of Republic of China (ROC) founder Sun Yat-sen’s (孫中山) motto “expel the foreigners [referring to the Manchu Qing rulers] and resurrect the Chinese nation” (驅逐韃虜，恢復中華): It is just that now the Manchu are no longer the foreigners in question, and Han Chinese ethnic chauvinism is now aimed at suppressing Tibetans and Uighurs instead.
The Chinese dream is also about “benefiting the people, although the people themselves were clearly an afterthought, an appendage to, not of, the main corpus. Nowhere in Xi’s dream suite will you find anything approaching freedom or democracy. The realization of Xi’s dream lies down the road of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Indeed, it is reminiscent of the controlled reform advocated by the late Qing politician Zhang Zhidong (張之洞), with his concept of “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.”
The rich and powerful revel in plenty, while saying that they will create a dream for the masses. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Chinese elite, the business magnates and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials who have sent their families abroad are competing with each other in search of their own American dream. The 1.3 billion people living in China are having their life spans shortened because of the polluted air they breathe; Tibetans are resorting to self-immolations to draw attention to the plight they suffer because of Beijing’s policies; the Huangpu River is clogged with tens of thousands of pig corpses; and Chinese are obliged to cross the border into Hong Kong to buy baby milk powder they can trust not to poison their children.
One Chinese netizen has said that their own dream is quite simple, and different from that being offered. They just want blue skies, clean water, food that is safe to eat, milk that is safe to drink and for their children to grow up in a fair and just society.
James Wang is a political commentator.
Translated by Paul Cooper