Searching for the Chinese Dream

President Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream" aims to restore China to its rightful place in the world - or so he hopes. Taken as an equivalent of the American Dream, the Chinese Dream, touted and repeated often by Xi since his ascension, is designed to encourage Chinese citizens to dream big about their country.

As much as the Chinese Dream can be seen as an effort to energize the country, critics at home and abroad are concerned that it is merely at attempt by the Communist Party to strengthen its position at the expense of addressing real reform considerations such as rule of law and expanding individual freedoms. Ultimately, if the Chinese Dream is to be realized, Xi must balance between the needs of the Communist Party and the needs of the people.

Identifying the Chinese Dream

What is the Chinese Dream? In brief, it seeks the betterment of China. Xi, however, has been short on specifics and has instead relied on broad strokes, his rhetoric infused with mixed reformist and nationalist tones. Accordingly, the New York Times has described the Chinese Dream as encompassing four dimensions: strong China, civilized China, harmonious China, and beautiful China.

A strong China seeks to establish a China capable of projecting its influence, whether economically, diplomatically, or military. A civilized China seeks to establish a fair and equitable society in tandem with a harmonious China, desiring to maintain peace between social classes. A beautiful China is one that is environmentally conscious and sustainable. Altogether, the Chinese Dream aims to realize an idealized vision. However, it is not without its critics.

Abroad, the concerns of neighboring countries to China's aspirations are understandable, given Beijing's entanglements in various maritime and territorial disputes. A China desiring to strengthen its military can only mean one thing to those claimant states in dispute over territories claimed: Beijing's preparations to flex China's muscles. Of particular concern to these claimant states is the absence of any notion of a peaceful China with respect to its neighbors, unless it is to be inferred that said neighbors must fall into orbit, lest they face the consequences of doing differently.

At home, some Chinese view President Xi's "Chinese Dream" as a propaganda tool designed to serve as a distraction to the slowing economy. Others believe the Dream fails to address important issues such as rule of law and China's constitution. If the New York Times' description of the Chinese Dream is complete and true, not one of the four parts addresses individual freedoms. Rather, the Chinese Dream is a call for collective action directed by the Communist Party to the people, overruling constitutionalism for a much higher ideal.

The People versus the Party

Not unexpectedly, any discussion would necessarily invite comparisons to the American Dream. At a glance, clear philosophical differences are easily noted. More than just an idea, the Chinese Dream has become institutionalized and is being advanced in the media and academia. It is a message from the president and the party rather than an organic by-product of China's fortunes.

Content and differences to the American Dream aside, it is worth examining whether Xi's Chinese Dream will have any real long-term success. Despite the slowing economic growth and pollution concerns, China is projected to overtake the US in terms of economic size within the decade. If timing is everything then now is as good a time as any for Xi to shape China into his ideal; however, if the Chinese Dream hopes to succeed, it must require a serious effort to support those very people who are destined to realize the dream.

The Chinese Dream cannot be fulfilled by any one Chinese citizen, and its success or failure will hinge on whether the people can muster forth to provide a strong, civilized, harmonious, and beautiful China. The success or failure of the Chinese Dream also requires the government - and by extension the Communist Party - to address the people's concerns.

Whereas the American Dream is individualistic in nature, and as such whether one has attained the American Dream differs from person to person, the Chinese Dream demands the individual to work collectively towards a national goal. Success is already defined in the Chinese Dream, and as a result has little consideration for the individual's well-being.

Under the Chinese Dream, the individual's happiness is determined by China's happiness. The people are servants of the state. Ironically, the people's achievements will be dependent on how much the state will do for the people.

Environmental destruction and pollution are not problems that can be solved by individuals, but by the government. Healthcare, fairness and equity, and cracking down on corruption require the government to take charge. If ordinary Chinese citizens cannot provide for themselves because they are poor, unemployed, and/or feel neglected by the state, it does not bode well for the fate of the President's new China. Though the Chinese Dream requires the people to do their part for the country, the people require the party to do their part for the people.

However, given that Xi himself has barely detailed or defined his Chinese Dream, it is far too soon to predict the challenges and mine fields ahead. What is not hypothetical is Xi's intention to establish China as a world power; and as such, the test for the president becomes whether this China will encompass citizens empowered or discontent.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)