Chinese Dreams (Zhongguo meng 中国梦)

by Geremie R. Barmé

Xi Jinping summed up the ideals of the party-state (the Communist Party-led government of the People’s Republic) as what he called the ‘China Dream’. Speaking as the new President of China in March 2013, he discussed this catchall vision in the following way (the official Xinhua News Agency translation is followed by an interpretation free of Party-speak in square brackets):

In order to build a moderately prosperous society, a prosperous, democratic, civilized and harmonious modern socialist country to achieve the China Dream of great rejuvenation of the nation, we need to achieve national prosperity and revitalization of the happiness of the people, which deeply reflects the Chinese people’s dream today and is in consistence with our glorious tradition.

[In other words: Only by pursuing economic reform to improve living standards and maintaining national stability by enforcing social harmony can China become both a wealthier country and a great power. This is what the Chinese people want and it will allow us to return to our former greatness.]

The realization of the China Dream must rely on a China Way which is Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. The China Way does not come easy, it originated from the great practice of reform and opening up for the past 30 years and 60 years of continuous exploration since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, as well as the course of 170 years of the development of the Chinese nation in modern times… .

[The China Way means a party-state that pursues constant economic transformation while maintaining state control over key industries and economic levers. We call this ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ (juyou Zhongguo tesede shehuizhuyi 具有中国特色的社会主义); it has been devised on the basis of the successes and failures of the Mao years, as well as on experiences of the post-Cultural Revolution Reform era. We have also learnt much about politics, economics, social harmony and Western attitudes to China since the time of the First Opium War in 1840.]

The China Dream fundamentally is the dream of the Chinese people, the realization of the China Dream closely relies on the people’s effort and in return benefiting the people… . In order to build a moderately prosperous society, a prosperous, democratic, civilized and harmonious modern socialist country and to achieve the China Dream that will see the great rejuvenation of the nation, we need to achieve national prosperity and the revitalization as well as the happiness of the people. These things profoundly reflect the dreams of the people of China today and they are in accord with our glorious traditions.

[The Chinese can realise their individual dreams only if they also accept the common national goals devised by the Chinese Communist Party.]

Department store in Beijing from the series ‘Great Mall of China’ 中华商城. Photo: Adrian Suddenly Gordon

Department store in Beijing from the series ‘Great Mall of China’ 中华商城.
Photo: Adrian Suddenly Gordon

China’s dreams in recent years tend to be couched in the language of revivalism, continuity with past glories and the realisation of long-held hopes. This is a characteristic of a culture that traditionally looks to the past to articulate its future: even the officially promoted goal of achieving a ‘moderately prosperous society’ (xiaokang shehui 小康社会) draws its phrasing from a classical Confucian text. The China Dream also echoes the ‘American Dream’ — an expression popularised by James Turslow Adams who, in his 1931 Epic of America spoke of ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement … unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class’.

Logo for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Source: Yanocorax

Logo for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Source: Yanocorax

Both the Chinese leadership and the media have previously used the word ‘dream’ (meng 梦) metaphorically to describe the country’s re-emergence as a major power and other contemporary national aspirations. They celebrated the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, as realising a century-old dream, and its slogan was ‘One World, One Dream’ (Tong yige shijie, tong yige mengxiang 同一个世界同一个梦想). Prior to Xi Jinping taking up the idea, various books and articles discussed what the China Dream might be. Among the most noteworthy are the People’s Liberation Army Colonel Liu Mingfu’s 2010 book, China Dream: The great power thinking and strategic positioning of China in the post-American age (Zhongguo meng: hou Meiguo shidaide daguo siwei zhanlüe dingwei 中国梦:后美国时代的思维战略定位). A professor at Beijing’s National Defense University (Guofang daxue 国防大学), Liu employs examples from dynastic and modern history to discuss the present predicament of the Communist Party, celebrates the country’s ‘militaristic spirit’ (shangwu jingshen 尚武精神) and warns that corruption and too supine an approach to international affairs could undermine China’s rise as a global power. There is speculation that some key themes of Xi Jinping’s present program are drawn from Liu Mingfu’s work; others claim that an October 2012 article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times titled ‘China needs its own dream’ was a more direct source of inspiration.

Although Xi Jinping calls the ‘Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation’ (Zhonghua minzu weidade fuxing 中华民族伟大的复兴) the core aim of the country’s twenty-first century dream, that phrase has featured in official rhetoric for over a decade (and in Taiwan for many decades). Related exhortations urging national revitalisation such as ‘Revive China’ (Zhenxing Zhonghua 振兴中华) have been part of the official landscape for far longer. Its historical antecedents include the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen’s Revive China Society (Xingzhonghui 兴中会). Founded in Hawaii in 1894, the Revive China Society played a central role in the 1934 Republican-era New Life Campaign mentioned in the introduction to this Yearbook.

A contemporary rendering of a Feng Zikai painting: ‘The heart has lofty thoughts, but one’s feet are firmly on the ground’. Source:

A contemporary rendering of a Feng Zikai painting:
‘The heart has lofty thoughts, but one’s feet are firmly on the ground’.

While the Party promotes a consensual vision for China in terms of a ‘national dream’, from the end of 2012, independent writers and thinkers have been speaking of other long-cherished dreams — for constitutional governance (xianzheng 宪政), greater freedoms, and the rule of law — that have been quashed by successive governments since the 1910s.

Same Bed, Different Dreams

The Southern Weekly (Nanfang zhoumo 南方周末) is an influential newspaper based in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, known for its pro-reform, relatively liberal stance. It has a tradition of publishing a special editorial at the beginning of each year. In December 2012, inspired by Xi Jinping’s use of the China Dream as a political concept that he said the Party would use in the years to engage and motivate the nation, a lead writer drafting the New Year’s editorial for 2013 took up the theme. However, he made one critical, and controversial, addition. The draft editorial was titled ‘Dream of China, a dream of constitutionalism’ (Zhongguo meng, xianzheng meng 中国梦, 宪政梦). The local propaganda chief ordered the text changed; what readers saw was a brief, error-ridden message introducing a bland, pro-party editorial titled ‘We are closer to our dream than ever’. The controversy surrounding the editorial and the crude intervention of the authorities, at a crucial phase in the country’s political transition, highlighted how issues surrounding media freedom, one-party rule, individual rights and political reform were already bedeviling the new leadership.

China’s media and micro-blogosphere buzzed with criticism of this interference in the mainstream media by party hacks. Petitions circulated in support of the paper, even as defenders of the intervention pointed out that all papers ultimately belong to the Party and operate at its discretion.

What enraged the editors and readers of Southern Weekly, however, was not the everyday reality of government censorship so much as the lack of consultation with which the censors had operated. Other journalists and liberal-leaning microbloggers supported the editors’ position. The fact that a number of high-profile, ordinarily apolitical entertainers such as the actress Yao Chen joined in the criticisms amplified their impact.

On the evening of Sunday, 6 January, under pressure from the Party, the paper claimed, through its official microblog account, that contrary to online rumours the editorial had in fact been written by a newspaper staffer. Editors rebelled against this disingenuous capitulation, threatening a walkout unless the truth was acknowledged. On 7 January, they staged a protest outside the Southern Weekly’s offices, joined, according to online accounts, by upwards of 1,000 reporters, staff and members of the public. On the same day, the Global Times (Huanqiu shibao 环球时报) — a tabloid offshoot of the official People’s Daily — posted an editorial characterising the protests as the isolated actions of a small group of misguided individuals spreading falsehoods and supported by traitorous dissidents inside and outside China. The authorities ordered this article to be republished widely, but in a show of solidarity with the Southern Weekly, a number of prominent media outlets declined to run it.

By 9 January, the incident was quietly resolved. Provincial censors made vague assurances that they would be more hands-off in the future, and journalists went back to work. Independent commentators recalled the old Chinese expression: ‘we might share the same bed, but we dream different dreams’ (tong chuang yi meng 同床异梦).


The expression ‘constitutional governance’ has a century-long pedigree in Chinese political discourse. Used by commentators today, it represents a powerful challenge to the authorities, who maintain that the success of the Chinese Way depends on strong, unified one-party rule.

Following the 1911 revolution that saw the end of dynastic rule in China, a short period of democratic government was ushered in. Its demise was marked by the assassination of the Nationalist Party politician Song Jiaoren in May 1913, supposedly at the beset of his political enemies. It was an anniversary solemnly marked by Chinese public intellectuals in 2013.

‘The Chinese Dream ... My Dream’. A government billboard in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. Source: ImagineChina

‘The Chinese Dream … My Dream’. A government billboard in Taiyuan, Shanxi province.
Source: ImagineChina

Song Jiaoren’s revolutionary colleague, Sun Yat-sen, is acknowledged both in China and Taiwan as the father of modern China. During the early years of the Republic, after it became evident that democratic hopes were threatened by disunity and strongman politics, Sun envisaged the new Republic of China passing through three phases of political development. Initially, there would be a necessary period of military rule (junzheng 军政), during which the fractious country would be unified and territorial issues resolved. This was to be followed by an era of political tutelage (xunzheng 训政) in which a one-party state would guide the country to greater material prosperity and political maturity. Finally, China would usher in an era of constitutional governance (xianzheng 宪政), participatory democracy and the rule of law. When the editors of the Southern Weekly employed the expression ‘constitutional rule’ alongside the new official slogan about the China Dream, they were, in essence, endorsing political reform and calling for a curb on the power of the Communist Party. The controversy was a sign that the new leaders would confront continued pressure to follow economic reform with political reform and greater media openness — topics of debate and contestation in China since the late 1970s. In the months that followed, party leaders attempted to limit public discussion of media freedom and political pluralism, promoting instead their China Dream. On 4 April, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences extended research grants to scholars to study the idea of the China Dream from ‘various perspectives and in various disciplines’, while, on 17 May, the Xinhua News Agency launched a nationwide photography contest asking participants to capture ‘My China Dream’, and numerous middle and high schools held essay contests on the same theme. Despite its rhetorical echoes of the American Dream, the China Dream does not represent any sort of ideological shift toward Western-style individualism or values. In one study of the way users of Sina Weibo talk about the China Dream, Chris Marquis and Zoe Yang of the Harvard Business School found that seventy-two percent of private Chinese citizens’ independent (‘non-propaganda-influenced’) micro-blogs viewed the China Dream as a vision for the people as a whole. The study also found that Chinese Internet users, while admiring the American Dream’s success in uniting and guiding the American people, scorned it as too narrow, valuing only individual comfort and success.

Primary school students during a class exercise on how to be civilised (jiang wenming 讲文明). The students in the back row hold signs that say being civilised means helping other people, giving up your seat for seniors and helping the elderly cross the street. Source: ImagineChina

Primary school students during a class exercise on how to be civilised (jiang wenming 讲文明). The students in the back row hold signs that say being civilised means helping other people, giving up your seat for seniors and helping the elderly cross the street.
Source: ImagineChina

For many citizens, however, ‘China Dream’ remains just another slogan. There are wags who joke online that the real Chinese dream is to buy into a part of the American Dream — to emigrate, or at least send your children to school in the US. As for their part, from mid-2013, the authorities began cautioning people not to allow their individual aspirations to clash with the collective dreamscape of China.