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Chinese Dreaming

It has become a feature of political culture in China that each new leader puts forth a slogan that he hopes will define his "administration."

When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979 he launched the "Four Modernizations," a campaign designed to jolt China out of the chaos and economic stagnation following the Cultural Revolution by embarking on modernization programs in industry, agriculture, science and technology, and the military. The slogan "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics" came into vogue a bit later, and was a bit trickier to nail down. When I would ask my Chinese friends back then what in the world it meant, they would reply, "Oh, it means capitalism, but we're still not comfortable with that word."

Jiang Zemin came up with the "Theory of the Three Represents," which supposedly indicated that the Party was to represent not just the interests of the peasants and workers, but also of the "advanced and social productive forces," "the progressive course of China's advanced culture," and "the fundamental interests of the majority." I say 'supposedly' because I don't think anyone ever had a clue what it meant. When I would ask my Chinese friends what in the world it meant, they would just roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders and say, "who knows?" After Jiang Zemin stepped down from his position as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the phrase completely disappeared from public discourse, although he did manage to get the phrase enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. Mention it now and people just laugh.

Hu Jintao came to power in 2002 promising to build a "harmonious society," and thus did the word HARMONY slowly work its way into all political and social discourse. The railway system even got into the act, naming the new high speed trains that now zip about the country "China Harmony Rail." After ten years, the novelty wore off, however, and people in China (both local and foreign) are just sick of the word 'harmony' and all it's variations. "Harmonize" has also become a synonym censorship, as in "my blog post was harmonized."

Now Xi Jinping has become the leader of China and the slogan he has put forth is the "Chinese Dream." Earlier this month, The Economist published a special report about it, even suggesting that the slogan may have been borrowed from Thomas Friedman (a scary thought).

The Asia Society recently asked Evan Osnos, the Beijing-based correspondent for The New Yorker about the meaning of this "Chinese Dream." Specifically, they asked for help in understanding what it is, who can attain it, and the obstacles for turning the dream into reality.

Here is a video clip of Osnos reply to the questions.

In sum, he makes these points:

  1. It is the first slogan that makes sense.
  2. It is an attempt to give individuals opportunities to keep moving forward.
  3. It is about wealth creation and continuing China's rise.
  4. It is about humility in governing by acknowledging corruption and streamlining the bureaucracy
  5. It is about national pride.
  6. It is the first time that Chinese citizens are acknowledged as having similar interests American citizens.
  7. The biggest challenge is that "the political system has run out of its ability to accommodate the incredible diversity of expectations and aspirations that Chinese people have today."

Hmmm change the wording of that last point slightly, and you have a pretty accurate description of the situation regarding the church: "the religious regulatory system has run out of its ability to accommodate the incredible diversity of expectations and aspirations that Chinese Christians have today."

Will the "Chinese Dream" also be able to accommodate the expectations and aspirations of China's religious believers? Only time will tell.

Oh, and if you are working in China and have any dealings with officials, now is a good time to revise your banquet speeches and toasts by removing references to harmonious relationships and replacing them with references to dreams.

Further reading on the "Chinese Dream:"

Chasing the Chinese Dream (The Economist)

Xi Jinping and the Chinese Dream (The Economist)

A Nebulous Slogan (The Economist)

The Chinese Dream (Caixin Online)

Note: this article is cross-posted at

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio