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The Ideals of the Chinese Dream, a Remnant of the Cultural Revolution – US-China Today

When you think of the word ‘dream’ you commonly envision a personal aspiration or idealistic goal. The “Chinese Dream,” on the other hand, intertwines both China as a nation but also one for the people. In Consul General Li Huaxin’s speech at the University of Sydney, he expressed, “The Chinese Dream aims to build a more prosperous and stronger country, realizing national revitalization as well as providing opportunities for all Chinese people to lighten their lives and make their dreams come true.” 

First coined in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Dream represents the national ideals of China alongside the personal values of the Chinese people. A large part of this is due to the Cultural Revolution, one of the world’s biggest socio-political movements and by far China’s biggest. Led by Mao Zedong, then chairman of the Communist Party, this movement aimed to create a collectivist communist vision for Chinese society. Through the heavy purging of traditional and capitalist aspects of Chinese society, people adopted a collectivist and nationalist mindset in which personal aspirations were put aside.

China envisions a future of prosperity as well as collaboration with other countries around the world.

Kerry Brown, a former First Secretary of the British Embassy in Beijing, emphasizes an integral concept for China as a country is status. “When the leaders originally talked about this idea, Xi Jinping (and people around him about six or seven years ago) referred to it as China having the same material standards of living as other countries such as America and countries in Europe,” he says.

In a way,  China is normalizing through being able to have a dream: with a history that is often victimized, it can now write its next chapter through the opportunity to dream and provide idealistic lifestyles for its people. The country strives for peaceful development where great education, stable occupation and income, better environment, and better medical service is provided to its people.

The Chinese Dream will also impact the entire world as China only grows in power and wealth. Chinese leaders foresee a win-win cooperation of trade and development, in which China embraces the world openly and pushes for harmonious coexistence despite differences. Those are big concepts that seem intangible and almost inapplicable to the everyday person. Thus, there needs to be a scaling down from country, to communities, to families, and to people. When 1.3 billion people hold similar values, they can combine to create a huge impact nationally, and globally, especially economically.  

 Values change over generations, as does the Chinese Dream. “It was crafted to align the Communist Party’s appeal, collectively, to what people want in their own individual lives,” Brown says. “The deal is that ‘look, you can have these things as long as, as a country, we achieve great status, strength, richness and power.’”

As China and its socioeconomic status has changed so much in the last 40 years, there are great differences in generational values. According to Brown, there are even intergenerational differences in values between, say, a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old, which is why the Chinese government communicates in a somewhat abstract way: there are many different sets of values that they’re trying to respond to and use to inspire them. 

“It’s really trying to find balance with the deeply rooted confucianism hierarchical values and collectivist vision, with elements of capitalism in the last 40 years where young Chinese live lives that are very self centered,” says Brown. In the state enterprises, people had to do what they were told, so there was not much incentive. Now, though, with private enterprises, China adopts much of a capitalist society mindset where time is free and much of that manifests in an intense work life, you can do what you want but it’s all monitored. 

The history of the Cultural Revolution continues to be immortalized in Chinese education today.

The Chinese Dream has existed for decades before it received its ‘official’ name in the 2010s. So what does the Chinese Dream mean to individuals of different generations?

Wang Jun (a pseudonym) was born in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. When he was an undergraduate, it was the third year that China resumed higher education. “For me, the reopening of universities represented a very rare education opportunity that much of the young people at the time felt could help them to be the next generation leaders of China,” says Wang

China was beginning to reform and required next generation leaders to be loyal to communism and education, and only around 10-15 percent of all high school students in the nation could get into college. This meant it was very competitive as personal success was measured against one’s peers, through getting into the best colleges, taking on the hardest majors, and obtaining scholarships to go to America to study.

The second way success was measured was in how much people wanted to contribute to the reform of China. It very much was in line with the dream of China as a country freshly open to the world.

“In writing class, I remember one time the topic was “Leap to Year 2000.” That was the dream, the dream was what China will look like in year 2000,” Wang recalls. “We all envisioned it to be advanced, technology everywhere, people doing something they like, and rid of poverty. When someone has a vision, they put it into practice in their everyday lives.” 

Wang emphasizes at the time, the collective dream took precedence over personal ambitions. Though he had his own career aspirations, most of his peers did not have a dream for themselves because everyone needed to care about the country’s vision first. When they graduated from college, students could not choose their workplaces but were assigned. This, paired with the massive societal pressures on them, caused people to often feel “disoriented” by their ambitions and goals. “In terms of mental health, and in terms of pressures on people, Chinese society is like a capitalist society.” says Brown. 

These values Wang Jun reflects upon are quite different from those the Chinese Dream speaks to the generation of today. While it meant modern technology, freedom, better living standards, and education reform for Wang’s generation, Li Yanhe (pseudonym), a young Chinese high-schooler born after 2000, feels the Chinese Dream means being the most powerful country in the world.

Li Yanhe represents a new, younger generation’s ideas of what the Chinese Dream means.

“I think it’s this idea of not yielding to anyone and being number one,” Li explains. “I feel like they fuel that into the societal standards in how we are expected to perform at school and also in our future jobs.” This competitive pressure to work harder and perform better remains constant between the two generations, while the goals are different. 

Li has quite a reflective mindset and believes there are clear upsides and downsides to this value of power. “This goal of being the most powerful also translates into the ‘power’ of the individual,” he says. “Even though there are still societal expectations of what is a ‘good’ career, I feel that my generation has more choice of the individual paths we can take.” 

Li found a passion for drawing and painting in middle school and has been pursuing it since, even considering applying to art schools both locally and internationally. “My parents never had the chance to just go and explore something they felt personally interested in,” he says. “I feel very lucky to be able to choose to study something I love. I think a fulfilling job is one you find personal passion in.” 

According to Li, however, the negatives to these more individualistic values has promoted more selfish behavior in his generation. He sees in himself, and in his peers, a more self-centered mindset. “Sometimes I feel that I am doing things just for myself, and that nothing is as important as my own aspirations and goals. I try to be less selfish but it’s hard in today’s society.” he says. 

An extreme encapsulation of this self-absorption can be seen in the rise of the fuerdai (富二代), a rising term describing the sons and daughters of new rich Chinese who benefited greatly from the reform era. Throughout the 2010s, they have gained traction as very extreme examples of selfish young Chinese who flaunt their exorbitant wealth. From photos of people about to light a pile of money on fire, to reports of a sex party at a beach resort in 2013, countless fuerdai scandals litter Chinese social media.

In contrast with Li Yanhe, their sense individualism doesn’t necessarily involve a pursuit of goals or aspirations, but rather material things and thrills. Due to social media, the fuerdai presence has been magnified and more outrageous across the country: for example, in 2015 the son of Wang Jianlin, a wealthy real estate mogul, gained widespread notoriety after posting a photo of his dog wearing two gold Apple Watches.

Pictures like this one are often uploaded to social media as a way for fuerdai to flaunt their extreme wealth.

Less value is also placed on filial piety and family obligation, which was very true to old Confucianist ideology, in today’s generation. “Younger people don’t feel those obligations as much,” says Brown. “There was a case a few years ago of an elderly man in Shanghai dying on his own. You can’t really imagine this happening in Chinese society 20 years ago. The bonds between people in their family are weaker.”

With fuerdai lacking in dedication to familial obligations, local governments are trying to reeducate the wealthy class with lectures on traditional values and filial piety. Being the heirs to major Chinese companies, many of these young rich Chinese elite are the future of private Chinese businesses, so it is important they understand more than just how to spend money. 

Brown also attributes these issues to the impact of one-child policy, a program implemented by the government in 1980 that limited Chinese families to having one child, to combat the rapid population growth rate. “The other problem is that younger people, because of the one-child family structure, there are bigger obligations and fewer people to look after them. Actually, their disposition is to be not as giving and more self centered,” Brown explains. 

China’s adoption of more capitalistic values such as material things, paired with the current societal values of power and self-achievement, contributes to a generation that is more self-centered. “With an outlook for themselves, and being expected to look after an aging population who are going to need a lot of help, there is not really the social wealth to look after them,” emphasizes Brown. 

The fuerdai are not only viewed as an embarrassment to the Chinese government, but has been actually deemed an economic threat. Though the majority of the nation’s youth are not like this, with more and more of China’s younger population being able to achieve personal goals of material wealth, what will it mean for future generations? Perhaps obligation to family, community, and country is thrown out the window. 

In the next ten years, hopefully the Chinese Dream will find the perfect balance between the two where the national ideals of China and personal values of the people work harmoniously. Where individuals can truly pursue a dream that is for themselves, their family, and the country. What that picture will be is uncertain, as Chinese society is one that is constantly changing and developing. 

The Chinese Dream continuously affects both the individuals like Wang Jun, who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and people like Li Yanhe, who are the current youth of the country. To Wang, the Chinese Dream fueled a desire to selflessly push for the economic and technological development of the nation. On the other hand, for Li, it represents the empowerment of an individual.

In both examples, the core values of the Chinese Dream stays true. Despite generational differences, it strives for national revitalization, providing opportunities for Chinese people, and building a prosperous and strong country.