In a post last week, James Fallows raises an interesting question: "What is the Chinese Dream?" He is, of course, alluding to the notion of the "American Dream," and wondering whether contemporary China has a similar summarizing cultural symbol that captures the aspirations of the society as a whole.
It should be noted at the outset that any such endeavor is flawed in the sense that a "dream" of this sort is never fully inclusive of an entire society. The "American Dream," obviously, often fails. But Fallows's exercise is still worthwhile, if we are seeking a comparison of contemporary China and the US, at least along the "soft power" lines of symbolic imagery.
One point he raises, that I want to push back on, is the "non-universal" quality of Chinese ambitions. He writes:
...After China's centuries of seeming to move backward as a society and its more recent decades of tragedy and turmoil, the simple bourgeois comforts are much of what the modern Chinese miracle could and should provide.
But there is a way in which the question does make sense, as an expression of concern about what the rise of a "non-universal" nation will mean for the rest of the world.
He contrasts this immediate, particularist, material Chinese focus with the universal projects of the West:
Through the centuries of Western military, technological, and economic dominance, "universalism" of some sort has been so basic a part of international relations that it barely needed to be discussed. The leaders of the French Revolution issued their Declaration of the Rights of Man -- not the rights of Frenchmen. The Declaration of Independence began, "When, in the course of human events," not "events in the colonies of North America." With varying degrees of sincerity, Western colonialists tried to create replica British, French, or American citizens in their colonies. Long before the colonial era, Christian missionaries wanted to bring people worldwide to their view of the one true universal faith.
We must first recognize that imperialism and colonialism and coercion were the means by which various universal ideals were imposed upon others around the world. And we must also recognize the terribly human cost of those impositions.
But Fallows's point, I think, is that, after WWII, certain ideas - popular sovereignty, human rights, bourgeois materialism - did become widely dispersed and absorbed into the indigenous practices of many, many countries around the world, China included. And to the degree that those "universal" ideals create hopes and aspirations in individuals in many different parts of the world, they could provide a kind of soft power resource for those places that are perceived to be permitting their expression to the greatest degree. The "American Dream" can be understood as being consistent with certain globally-dispersed aspirations (thus the large number of people from other countries who seek citizenship in the US to pursue those aspirations). Can the "Chinese Dream" be similarly conceived?
Maybe it can. And that might be possible because China is becoming "universal," at least in a certain sense.
Nine years ago I gave a lecture on this very topic, entitled, "The Return to a Universal China," later condensed into an LA Times piece: "Pop Culture Leads -- Freedom Follows" There, I argued that in imperial China there was a sort of universalism:
In imperial times, a universal ideal of Chinese-ness was to be found in the Confucian classics. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity, could learn to live the good life. Qian Long was Manchurian, not Han Chinese, yet he was, in his time, the epitome of Chinese culture. Indeed, the primary means to political power and wealth was cultural attainment, tested by the rigorous bureaucratic examination system. Independent merchants may have made fortunes through their entrepreneurial wiles, but, once successful, they quickly took on the trappings of the Confucian gentleman and made sure their sons studied the classics and practiced the rituals.
The universal civilizational ideal disciplined both politics and economics. This, of course, was lost in the 20th century, with the decline of the Chinese imperial state and the rise of Maoist socialism. The rest of the story is well known:
In communist China, the party monopolized political power and the state controlled how wealth was produced and distributed. The party-state was also in the business of regulating culture. Mao even launched a Cultural Revolution in a desperate effort to destroy any possible challenge to his own preeminence. The Confucian gentleman was dead and the Red loyalist supreme.
China's universalist aspiration was also killed. It seemed, for a fleeting moment, that traditional Sino- centrism might be replaced by socialist internationalism, that China would be a part of a grand global revolutionary project. But nationalism proved the stronger force. Mao was, in the end, much more interested in socialism in one country -- his own -- than in building a worldwide movement.
By putting "politics in command," Mao rendered a universal China impossible.
Deng Xiaoping's "opening and reform," however, re-calibrated the balance between culture (which was traditionally the realm of Chinese universalism), politics and economics. The Party would hold on to political power but would permit much greater latitude for individuals pursuing self-interest in the economic and cultural spheres. And that has opened the way for new universalist possibilities:
The political liberation of culture and wealth is not unprecedented in Chinese history. In the early decades of the 20th century, the old ways had been discarded and the new was everywhere intoxicating the young. But war destroyed this efflorescence, and communist victory brought back a stricter political regime. Now, however, the openness is even headier. Globalized communications and transportation make virtually any cultural form anywhere available to the Chinese. And they seize the opportunities with passion.
Oddly enough, globalization has also reconstituted a Chinese universalism of sorts. Imperial universalism was founded on the notion that (almost) anyone could become Chinese; now, universalism is a matter of Chinese becoming (almost) anything.
That last paragraph holds up pretty well nine years later.
The issue, however, is that the contemporary cultural transformation of China, the destabilizing openness to a much wider range of expressions of "Chinese-ness," is very much still in process. The Party tries to contain cultural change at the margins, when it threatens to undermine its political hegemony. Many Chinese people, especially older generations, are uncomfortable with the loss of traditional (even if that means "socialist") foundations for meaning and ethics. Problems and tensions abound. But many Chinese embrace the new possibilities. They move forward creatively and happily and ingeniously, re-inventing Chinese-ness and China at every step.
There have been other moments in Chinese history when cultural change and openness shaped identity in new and beautiful ways: the Tang Dynasty. Perhaps that could be a model for a new "Chinese Dream". Kaiser Kuo, who named his metal band "Tang Dynasty," suggested as much a few years ago: