Growth Challenges

The Middle Dream


Soon after becoming Chinese President in November 2012 Xi Jinping spoke of his belief that “The Great Revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese dream”. Attempts to understand the concept of “Chinese dream” have followed extensively since. This post reflects on the evolution of Chinese leaders’ political lexicon since Deng, and finds that Xi’s “China dream” is a lexical shift, but part of a policy language continuum..

Reformist leader Deng Xiaoping famously employed the slogan “opening and reform” which endured to become the commonly used phrase capturing China’s remarkable program of economic reforms since 1979. Lesser-known of Deng’s lexicon however, , is his 1978 call for the “invigoration of China” (zhenxing zhonghua). That is, the “invigoration of China” was Deng’s national vision, while “opening and reform” served as the label for the  policy platform that would  move the nation toward that vision.

In Deng’s footsteps, President Jiang Zemin’s vision was of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Later in his presidency  a policy framework  emerged, called the “Three Represents” – these being tightly linked to the broader vision. The Three Represents are: 1) the development  of advanced productive forces; 2) the orientations of an advanced culture; 3) and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of China. The lexicon of Jiang’s leadership was  more inclusive than Deng’s, by both  explicitly including social and cultural goals, as well as making reference to the whole population. It began the process of pushing the boundaries from a tangible to an aspirational national vision.

President Hu Jintao, continued with a visionary theme of rejuvenation. He also continued to move in a more social inclusive direction, coining the phrase “harmonious society” as his umbrella policy reference. That notion is said to include a stable political environment, a prosperous economy, and people able to live in peace and to work in comfort as social welfare continuously improves. Amid tensions arising from decades of transition, Hu reverted to Confucian notions of harmony in order to stabilise China’s internal and external politics.

With prior language in mind, current President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” is easier to appreciate as a continuation of crafted language comprising big picture statements and subordinate policy slogans.  The new vision arguably reaches forward  in terms of its aspirational qualities, directed both inside and outside of China. While a small minority in China are now extremely rich, one of Xi’s difficult tasks is to raise the standard of living for the rest – amid tougher international economic conditions.  The blueprint for navigating that task is the 60-point output of the November 2013 18th Central Committee Third Plenum, which outlines steps toward China’s broad passage to becoming “a moderately well-off society”, and the economic essence of the “Chinese Dream”.

The intangible inclusion of aspiration in the visionary language of the “China Dream” is interesting. Unlike the mechanical inferences of ‘opening and reform’,  “China Dream” implicitly allows for hope (for more wealth)  at the level of the Chinese nation as well as at the level of households and individuals. The NEW dream provides scope for individuality within a broader collective while concurrently being accessible uniquely to all layers of society. Rich and poor alike can dream. Perhaps the poor may even be relatively dream rich.

The China Dream resonates with the long-standing American dream. At the heart of the American dream lies a state-of-mind of optimism that allows American individuals, households and the nation to overcome challenges and realise their inter-generational goals of rising prosperity. Inducing such a spirit within China may help the nation replicate America’s success. Secondly, Xi may be seeking to use the notion of respective Chinese and American dreams as a platform for moving toward a more peer-based relationship with the USA. If so, and if it works with America, that success could serve as a precedent for relations with the rich world elsewhere.

Associations between the Chinese and American dream in any case remain those of nuance. In contrast, a link between the Chinese dream and that of an “African dream” was directly proposed by Xi himself in his inaugural presidential speech in Africa. “The Chinese and African people should enhance unity, cooperation, mutual support and assistance so as to make our dreams come true. We should also work with the rest of the world to realize the dream of the world for enduring peace and common prosperity, and make new and even greater contribution to the noble cause of peace and development of mankind,” Xi said in Tanzania in February 2013.

Since the Chinese dream focuses most tangibly on economic growth, sustainable development, social and economic welfare gains for its people, it naturally converges with the African dream, according to former UN Deputy Secretary General and former Tanzanian foreign minister, Asha-Rose Mtengeti Migiro. Now a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, Migiro’s view is that the Chinese and African dreams converge in the area of working together to realise a shared prosperity and mutual development. Amid this type of unity of vision, some analysts assert that African countries may be wise to retain independence of their dreams. Whichever the dream, it appears that South-South aspirations and growth have clearly shifted from the periphery toward the core.

In May 2013 The Economist noted the Chinese dream to be a ‘Dream a little dream of Xi’. In his broad vision of rejuvenation, Xi appears to be in step with his recent predecessors. In his choice of China Dream lexicon he attempts to open an aspirational bridge between the poorest and richest within China. Outside of China the same applies between China and both the poorest and richest countries of the world economy, particularly in outreach to the world’s technological leader, the United States, and to the poorest continent of Africa. The “Chinese Dream” appears to be the middle dream both inside and outside of a rejuvenating Middle Kingdom. Whether it enjoys a dream run remains to be seen – or should that ‘Xi-en’?


This is an edited version of a piece first appearing here.

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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