“What Is the Chinese Dream?”

A nice read from James Fallows:

When I first arrived in China, I wrote the one and only “I’ve just arrived, and here is what I’m wondering” article that journalistic convention permits each writer on first immersion in a country. Among the questions I said I wanted to answer was, What is the Chinese dream?

Nearly six years later, I realize that it’s a silly or meaningless question, since for the foreseeable future the country’s ambitions will be fully satisfied by allowing hundreds of millions of people to realize their individual and family dreams. Grandparents who can live in reasonable health and security to an old age? Great. Students whose education makes the most of their abilities and who have the chance to do their best around the world? Better still. After China’s centuries of seeming to move backward as a society and its more recent decades of tragedy and turmoil, the simple bourgeois comforts are much of what the modern Chinese miracle could and should provide.

At an individual level, and as an accumulation of daily interactions over the years, my experience is of the great permeability of Chinese culture. People are easy to meet, to get to know, to laugh or argue with. And in its vastness, today’s China contains people who belong to a variety of universalist faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Baha’i, and Buddhism. But in its international dealings as well as in most of its domestic operations, today’s China gives more weight to duties and ethics based on personal relations than on abstract principles of how people in general should be treated. It is too pat to put the ethical system the way one Chinese friend did: “Everything for my family and friends; nothing for anyone else.” But a variant of these sentiments goes through many aspects of Chinese life.

Early in my stay in Shanghai I was amused to see that the first occupant of an elevator would instantly push the “close door” button. Then, for a while, I was annoyed; ultimately I acclimated. When my wife and I had been away from China for several months and returned for a stay, my wife saw a charming young boy walking with his mother on a street in a little enclosed neighborhood. He was eating a bag of potato chips.

As the boy finished the last chip, he simply let the bag drop from his hand, onto the sidewalk in his neighborhood. His mother briefly glanced over to see the bag’s fall and kept on walking and talking with her son about something else. The instant seemed not to register, since the sidewalk where their bag sat was in no sense “theirs.” Of course, moments like this happen all around the world. At that moment in China it struck me as an illustration of the reality that the consciousness of a “general” public interest is underdeveloped, compared with interest that affects individual families in the here and now — and the country relative to other parts of the world.

From the Chinese government’s point of view, soft power has so far boiled down to using money to win other people’s goodwill or acquiescence. Chinese-built roads in Africa and Latin America; Chinese investment and interaction in Europe and the United States. The public-opinion elements of the soft-power campaign have often backfired, since they have been crudely propagandistic in the fashion of the government’s internal news management.

Even before the bad publicity China suffered with the jailing of Liu Xiaobo and the Jasmine crackdowns, a scholar from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Johan Lagerkvist, argued that China would likely lose more and more international support unless the government fundamentally reconceived its connections with the rest of the world. “China’s internal stability/security and survival of the Communist Party will always be more important to China’s leaders than the image it projects for outside consumption,” he contended. A choice between maintaining domestic order and pleasing outside critics was no choice at all.

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