Helen Wang: Chinese People Must Define Their Own Dream

Helen Wang, Forbes columnist and China’s middle class expert, shared her insights on the Chinese Dream, a recent hot subject in the media and Weibo, in an article published in Forbes business magazine on the 5th of February 2013. Helen considers that Chinese people, in fact, do not have a Chinese Dream and that they must define one.

Helen Wang

Chinese People Must Define Their Own Dream

by Helen Wang

China’s incoming president Xi Jinping has struck a new tone: “the Chinese Dream.” In a visit to the “Road to Revival” exhibit at the National Museum in Beijing, Xi delivered a speech, calling for the revival of China into a strong nation.

“Everyone has their own ideals, pursuits, and dreams,” he said. “The greatest Chinese dream, I think, is to achieve great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He then went on to say that his generation of Communists should continue to build the Party and forge ahead with the goal of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Since then, the term “the Chinese Dream” has been repeatedly discussed by media and on Weibo, a Chinese social media site with over 300 million users. Both Chinese and foreigners are asking the question: what is the Chinese Dream? After all, the Chinese middle class is now approaching half a billion. What is the Chinese Dream that can inspire their aspirations for a better life?

Clearly, it is not Xi Jinping’s version of the Chinese Dream.

Chinese People’s Reaction

On February 1, the Chinese government newspaper People’s Daily published an article to further explain Xi’s Chinese dream, “Power Source of the Chinese Dream.” The article says: “The American Dream is this: regardless of one’s background, with hard work and determination, one can achieve whatever one aspires. The Chinese Dream promotes the concept that what’s good for the country will be good for individuals. It reflects the Eastern culture of collectivism and believes as long as the country is strong people will be rightfully benefitted.”

Soon after the article appeared online, hundreds of people commented on Weibo […] Among nearly 700 comments, almost none of them bought into the party line. An overwhelming number of them appeared angry and sarcastic.

In the past, middle class Chinese tended to not talk about politics. They were more interested in getting on with their lives and improving their economic conditions. Now, they are beginning to speak up and voicing their opinions. They are also beginning to think more individualistically and think for themselves. They are clearly frustrated with the direction the country is heading – corruption, and a lack of the rule of law and political reform.

Xi Jinping had better listen seriously to the voices of the Chinese people!

Conversation about The Chinese Dream

Xi’s Chinese Dream statement is uninspiring, to say the least. Today, China is the second largest economy in the world, and soon to be the largest. In many people’s view, China is already a strong nation. The skylines of Shanghai, Chongqing, and other cities are much more impressive than those of New York or London. Such a call for nation-building would have made sense 100 years ago when China was at its knees. But today, average people are more concerned with their individual rights and opportunities for upward mobility.

To his credit, though, Xi Jinping helped to start a long over-due conversation: what is the Chinese Dream? When my book The Chinese Dream was translated into Chinese in 2011, I wrote in the Foreword that China doesn’t have a Chinese Dream. This is a crisis because it is like a country without a soul, a computer without software, or a ship without navigation.

The Chinese middle class is now more than 450 million strong. To ensure that the middle class continues to grow, China needs to have an environment where people can feel safe and secure to pursue their dreams and aspirations, and a system that is fair, just, and provides opportunities for all, not just for the privileged and connected few. This requires reform of China’s current political system, which is at the root of corruption and a lack of enforcement of the rule of law.

As one person pointed out sharply on Weibo, “The country belongs to the people. People make history. Only when everyone has freedom of speech, elections, migration, and equal rights, will they really care about the country – that is everybody’s dream.”

A Chinese saying says, he who goes with The Way thrives; he who goes against The Way perishes. In the past 30 years, the legitimacy of the Communist Party was due to its economic reforms. In the next 30 years, the legitimacy of the Party will depend on whether it will initiate political reforms. Otherwise, Xi Jinping’s grand Chinese Dream will turn out to be a Chinese nightmare.

Whatever the outcome, I am confident that the Chinese people will define their Chinese Dream.

Wang’s book The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You has won the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award and First Horizon Award. Wang has appeared on BBC World Television News, CNNMoney, been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, and featured in San Jose Mercury News, China Daily, and other major media.

A Forbes contributing columnist and sought-after speaker, Wang now divides her time between consulting for companies doing business in China and helping non-profit organizations make a difference.

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