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Lessons for the Chinese Dream

Zheng Wang & Elizabeth Barrett
August 15, 2013
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It has been reported that Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream was partially inspired by Thomas Friedman’s New York Times article “China Needs its Own Dream.” In this article, Friedman encouraged China to avoid following in the footsteps of the American Dream, which focuses on material goods. He believes that with such a huge population, China should pursue a path of sustainable and green development. While Friedman is absolutely right by saying that our planet cannot afford to have two major consuming countries, his interpretation of the American Dream is not fully accurate. He simplifies it into a materialistic and consumerist dream. The American Dream is more nuanced than that, even something that China can learn from.

Ask different generations of Americans and you will hear variations of the American Dream. At the turn of the 20th century, immigrants came to the United States in droves believing that they could improve their lives regardless of upbringing. People came with the wish to improve the livelihood for themselves and their children through hard work. By the 1950s, Americans began to have enough disposable income to purchase cars, washing machines, and dishwashers, which altered the American Dream. As more Americans grew affluent, the American Dream emphasized material goods as a way to measure one’s achievement of the Dream. On the surface, the American Dream has often manifested itself in owning a house with a front yard and a white picket fence. However, the Dream has always been much deeper than that, as there have been important underneath principles, spirits and institutions to support it.

One of the most significant features of the American Dream is social mobility. According to James Truslow Adams in 1931, the American Dream denoted that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement... regardless of the fortuitous circumstance of birth or position.” For many years, this land has provided a platform open to citizens of all social backgrounds. Barack Obama is a good example of the Dream’s social mobility. The American Dream gave Obama the opportunity to rise in education and social class to the point of being the leader of the country. In recent years, there have been rising concerns that the American Dream is crumbling. This has actually been a global phenomenon due to the globalization of job markets. Throughout the world, including in the US, there are instances where social mobility is becoming more difficult. People may feel they are being marginalized, but globalization has also created new opportunities for today’s youth to change their destiny and social standing through hard work and, more importantly, education. And generally, the US still has the most opportunities for social mobility.

In recent years, it has been feared that Chinese society is increasingly losing its social mobility in favor of status and relations to rise in wealth and social positions. There have been heated discussions in today’s China regarding the so-called “Quanerdai” (the second generation of the senior officials), “Fuerdai” (the second generation of the rich), and the different privileges they have enjoyed. Compared with sons and daughters from the ordinary families, they often face fewer obstacles in life and career opportunities. Many college students are worried about employment after graduation. Finding a job largely depends on one’s relations and networks, particularly the ranking of one’s parents. So those coming from lower social classes find it very difficult to move upward. A lot of recent news reports discuss the high job placements the offspring of government officials receive without qualifications. This makes China’s youth disheartened that they cannot change their future because the system in place will not allow it. Some young women even voluntarily become mistresses because there is no other way of improving their social standing. As a very important part of the Chinese Dream, China should reopen such societal channels for the Chinese people.

Another key takeaway is that the US is a society open to the whole world. The American Dream is not limited to American citizens. As an immigrant society, people originally from all over the world have realized their American Dream in this land. In contrast, Chinese society is not open enough to foreigners. Laws and regulations make it difficult for non-Chinese to make a home in China. For example, more and more Americans have gone to China to teach English in recent years, but many return home after a short stay. Some working visas require foreigners to return to their home countries to renew. China has recently made it even more complicated for foreigners to apply for visas, which is absurd for a global power. It is also extremely difficult for foreigners to purchase real estate, to obtain driver’s licenses, and even to open bank accounts in China. China’s door is not even open enough for overseas Chinese, who have always been a great strength to China’s development for bringing back investment and intellectual capital. It was reported that a new regulation will stipulate that those born in China with foreign passports provide special documents to get visas to go to China: invitation letters from Chinese relatives, proof of filial relationship, and, most strangely, proof of cancelation of the Chinese household accounts. For many overseas Chinese who have left the countries for decades, it is nearly impossible for them to obtain these documents. This clearly makes overseas Chinese feel unwelcome.

Recently, China has provided huge opportunities to other countries for development. However, the whole societal system is not created to retain non-Chinese who are drawn there. Many outdated regulations block out individuals from outside who could make a career in China. With China’s globalization, Chinese universities, enterprises, and research institutes should conduct more global searches for positions, rather than only look for Chinese citizens. Eventually, China’s rise will be stymied by a closed society. It should give foreigners the opportunity to realize their own Chinese Dream in China.

To realize the Chinese dream, President Xi believes that China “must take the Chinese way.” The reason he gives is that he and his party “have every confidence in our path, in our theories and in our system.” There is nothing wrong with a country that pursues its own path and has confidence in itself. However, that does not mean that a country can close its door and not learn from others. In fact, China has been a good student and has learned from the experiences of others; this has been an open secret of its recent rapid development. China can use the lessons learnt from the American Dream in order to achieve its own unique Chinese Dream.

Zheng Wang is an associate professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of “Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.”

Elizabeth Barrett is a researcher on East Asia with an MA in International Affairs from The Elliott School of International Affairs. She has previously worked and studied in China.

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