Waiting for a clearer China Dream

An advertisement board, seen through the fences, displays Chinese characters, which read "China Dream", in central Shanghai, on July 1, 2013. The characters are part of a slogan which read, "Come together and build the China Dream". -- PHOTO: REUTERS
An advertisement board, seen through the fences, displays Chinese characters, which read "China Dream", in central Shanghai, on July 1, 2013. The characters are part of a slogan which read, "Come together and build the China Dream". -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Guo Weimin is director-general of the press bureau of The State Council Information office, the chief information office of the Chinese government. If someone were to explain to you what the hoo-ha over the China Dream is all about, it should be him.

The catchy slogan made its debut in November last year right when Mr Xi Jinping was promoted to the top Communist Party post.

While Deng Xiaoping had “reform and opening up” and Hu Jintao had “harmonious society” as their catch phrases, recently appointed Chinese President Xi chose “China Dream” as the banner to his time at the helm of the world's most populous country.

Mr Xi described it in broad over-arching terms such as “realising a prosperous and strong country, the rejuvenation of the nation and the well-being of the people.” Other state-run news networks said that it was the combination of personal dreams with the national dream, fulfilling the workers' obligations to the country.Evidently, so much - and yet nothing - has been said about the China Dream.

Not surprisingly, Mr Guo was not that much different. He trumpeted "prosperity, rejuvenation and happiness" as hallmarks of the China Dream. But when we - a group of journalists from Asia attending a two-week trip organised by the People's Daily last month - pressed him for details and specific policies in place to achieve this dream, he conceded that the China Dream represents a broad goal and threw out other terms such as "meritocracy" and "inclusiveness" that only confused us further.

Other government related organisations were also unashamed at spouting eye-rolling cliches such as creating a "better and brighter future" when posed similar questions about what the dream meant exactly.

Such phrases might be feel-good terms but they do not say much about this dream that is supposed to capture the hopes of 1.3 billion people and a mighty civilisation that stretches back 5,000 years. What are the specific goals and what is the time frame to achieve them? How is the China Dream different from the Harmonious Society espoused by former President Hu? What are the policies that might be introduced to put this dream within reach? It is hard to get answers to these questions.And it is precisely because the China Dream lacks a clear identity that it seems to border on being an insecure one as well. Comparisons to the much lauded American Dream are constantly made - the China Dream celebrates collectivism while the American Dream trumpets individualism, Chinese officials painfully explain. But ask the people on the streets - taxi drivers, tour guides and even a rural village head - what the China Dream means to them and their answer comes fast and easy. Get rich, they say, and acquire a better life - which I thought was uncannily similar to the American Dream.

Yet, the China Dream also seems to come with a chip on its shoulder caused by the aggression that China suffered at the hands of the West and Japan in the past. Nationalistic sentiment runs high in the ongoing dialogue to see China strong and take its rightful place on the global stage again.

Take for instance the recent Shenzhou-10 space mission. "The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger," Mr Xi said, referencing the China Dream as China races to catch up with the space capabilities of the United States and Russia. Its programme is highly ambitious - and a huge source of national pride - and includes plans to land a man on the moon after first sending a human into space in 2003.

However, while the China Dream has been widely promoted, not all are behind its call for greatness. Renowned economist Yao Yang, director of the China Center for Economic Research, a think tank housed in Peking University’s National School of Development, boldly told us that the China Dream is not accepted by all and that there is raging debate in society about what it should mean. Surprisingly frank, he added that the term is likely just a political slogan and that people may stop talking about it in a year or two. But by the end of the trip, all this hemming and hawing by Chinese officials also led me to wonder if I was possibly the one with the misplaced expectations instead. While I had insisted that the China Dream be about the nitty-gritty tangibles such as the promise of higher GDP figures, narrowing income gaps or a sustainable pension system, Beijing could have been pushing a larger concept. Left strategically ambiguous, the China Dream could simply be a suggestion of a different way. Beijing was telling the world that the Chinese have their own dream - and development model - and should be allowed to set their own path in becoming a powerful and prosperous nation without constant barbs from the West. Do not try to define us, box us in or put labels on us because this was a new path in the making, China was essentially saying, and it was feeling its way as it went along.But ultimately, whatever the dream might - or might not - be, hard-selling a dream will not work. Dreams need to be bought into, similar to how the American Dream - a set of ideals including freedom and upward social mobility achieved through hard work - emerged organically, proving itself time and again. It did not need a pitch or persuasion but yet continues to inspire, attracting thousands to its shores each year in search of a better life.

Clearly, the China Dream is different in its formation but perhaps President Xi can take steps to make it a more believable one - one that is more than a mere suggestion of an alternative way. He can consider hammering out a path, with the help of concrete ideas and policies, so the Chinese can put their hope of a better life on more than just lofty ideals and buy into the dream.

Actions speak louder than words and lip service and rhetoric alone can no longer put off the desire for change under a new leadership. And with China increasingly growing in stature, it is not only holding the expectations of 1.3 billion people. The entire world is waiting.esthert@sph.com.sg