Xi Jinping’s recurring Chinese dream

According to a recent Qiushi opinion piece, “The Chinese dream has been nurtured and has grown from the sediments in the collective memory and history of our entire nation, humiliation and suffering are its soil, and that is why it is so profound, why it moves the people’s hearts so, and shakes people’s minds so.”

Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ reprises a particularly Chinese nationalist rhetoric of rejuvenation, renaissance and historical redemption. It was the dream of reformers of the new Chinese republic a century ago; it was the dream of revolutionary communists a half century hence. It is the recurring dream that just maybe a new galvanizing ideology and enlightened leadership can steer China out of a largely humiliating modern history towards reclaiming its place as a great world power.

Living in the Past

It is widely held that the traditional Chinese view of history is a cyclical one, of timelessness and proximity to the past.

In dynastic China system of dating which was based on the year of an Emperor’s reign, for example, reinforced an historical consciousness devoid of a sense of change over the longue duree. In the popular and “high” cultures of pre-twentieth century China, writes William Jenner, “there is little sense of secular development or change, unless as a decline from imagined golden and silver ages of remote, pre-dynastic antiquity”.[1]

If the Chinese were to put their faith in any historical locality, it was the past, not the future, that was idealized. “In traditional China”, claims Vera Schwarcz, “history took the place of religion”.[2]  A strong attachment to the past, she claims, was a “sacred commitment”, and references to the past became a major source of moral value. The past was regarded as a repository of everything good, an exemplification of virtue.

Throughout Chinese history, the past was held aloft as a normative symbol, a goal of history, an example of the way things ought to be. Even the great iconoclast, Mao Zedong, was a man embedded within an intense interest of and deference to the past. Crucially, Jiang Zemin’s leadership saw cultural nationalism take a prominent place within Chinese socialist ideology.

The ability to draw lineage from the established moral tradition and cosmological order, and to equate its ambitions with deep historical imperatives, has formed the bedrock of the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy – despite its various attacks on tradition.

Living for the future

Flanked by charisma and a glamorous wife, Xi Jinping has been viewed outside of China as something of a redux himself, evoking comparisons with JFK.

According to the Financial Times, Mr Xi’s Chinese dream evokes the saccharine sentimentality and social mobility of the Kennedy era. “The American dream may have had a bad 50 years since JFK’s untimely demise but Mr Xi seems to think it is ripe for reinvention now, halfway across the world in China.”

Notwithstanding such comparisons, the Chinese dream is a message of hope that captures and harnesses the domestic optimism welcoming new leadership. In this way, perhaps a more apt and recent American comparison might be found in the messaging of hope that had framed President Obama during – and for a time following – his initial race to the White House. Ultimately, however, for Obama and for any object of great expectations, hope fades.


[Caption: public service advertising posters surrounding a construction site at a busy Beijing street corner promotes an ideal future. Photographed by author.]

The obvious challenge for a fledgling leadership is to start turning the rhetoric of hope into action… for Xi Jinping to turn his Chinese dreams into reality. The state of international affairs suggests, however, that China’s new president is playing on a pitch more favorable to that faced by his modern predecessors. China, it appears, is now steaming inevitably towards a future in which its national power will eclipse even that of the US. The country’s already well-documented rapid rise may well prove Mr Xi’s dream rhetoric to be something more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Banking on historical redemption makes sure-fire sense when history is on your side. The rhetorical device of the Chinese dream is one that resonates with the collective Chinese memory, and its narrative of redemption resonates with what will be China’s likely future. In this sense, as a byline of the fledgling Xi Jinping administration, the Chinese dream makes for an effective weapon in the arsenal of what is being increasingly referred to in Chinese bureaucratic speak as ‘internal soft power’.

[1] W J F Jenner, The Tyranny of History [1992] London, Penguin, 1994. p.8.

[2] Vera Schwarcz, No Solace from Lethe: History, Memory and Cultural Identity in Twentieth Century China, in Tu Wei-ming (ed) The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1991. pp.76-77.


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