Glossy television images of happy, industrious and increasingly prosperous workers show a bright view of life in twenty-first-century China. But behind the officially approved story is a different reality, Gerard Lemos reveals in The End of the Chinese Dream. Lemos conducted hundreds of interviews with Chinese men and women in non-westernized areas distant from such cities as Beijing and Shanghai. He reports that the lives his subjects describe belie the myth of a harmonious, cohesive Chinese society. Much as the government promotes such a positive image, everyday people in China are beleaguered by immense social and community problems as well as personal, family and financial anxieties.
Lemos investigates a China beyond the tourist trail. He offers a revealing account of the thoughts and feelings of Chinese people regarding all facets of their lives, from education to health care, unemployment to old age, politics to wealth. Taken together, the stories of these men and women bring to light a broken society, one whose people are frustrated, angry, sad, and often fearful about the circumstances of their lives.
In this article, Gerard Lemos considers the implications of these findings and analyzes how China’s community and social problems threaten the ambitious nation’s hopes for a cohesive future.
The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future was published in June 2012, during the build-up to the leadership transition in China. The Communist Party’s intention was a smooth, choreographed handover from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang in the autumn of 2012.
When the book was published it was widely reviewed in the UK, the USA and Asia. Virtually all the reviewers noted without dissent my view that a widely shared Chinese dream had emerged in the 1980s. Economic improvements in the countryside, the creation of millions of jobs in Special Enterprise Zones and rapid growth and development in the cities had infused people from the top to the bottom of Chinese society with the optimistic belief that they could look forward to security, prosperity and social freedoms. However, the dream was to prove short-lived. Tian’anmen and the removal of Zhao Ziyang as General Secretary of the Party by Deng Xiaoping and the retired Party elders put an end to prospects for political reform. Following Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992 during which he emphasised the need for continued rapid economic reform, Jiang Zemin’s regime unleashed an accelerated wave of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation which, unlike the reform and opening of the 1980s, had profoundly negative effects for many people.
I discovered these anxieties for myself in a most novel way. In 2007, I received permission from the authorities to erect Wish Trees in communities in Chongqing that had faced wrenching change. I had asked people to post ‘leaves’, in reality postcards with a picture of a leaf on one side and four questions on the other, on a large picture of a tree I had erected with the help of students from the university where I was a visiting Professor. The questions were how would you describe yourself? What event changed your life? What’s your greatest worry? What do you wish for? Hundreds of people told me their deepest fears and innermost feelings about their hopes and dreams. The answers are in this book.
State-owned enterprises had closed and social benefits, always limited but nevertheless part of the Communist promise, were suddenly removed. Millions of people now faced unemployment rather than a job for life. Instead of the iron rice bowl of cradle to grave employment, housing and minimal but free public services, they had to pay high prices for education, unaffordable costs of uninsured health care and find their own means of financial support in old age. All these problems were exacerbated by the one child policy which undermined traditional kinship and Confucian notions of mutual social obligations and put an enormous strain of expectations and uncertainties on small, atomised families. To add insult to injury, all around them they saw a destroyed environment and egregious displays of sometimes ill-gotten gains by the newly wealthy. China was becoming a place they did not recognise and did not like; a place with a future from which they felt excluded; a future they feared. These changes, which took firm hold in Chongqing after the millennium, left people feeling so insecure that I announced in the title of my book that the Chinese dream of the 1980s was at an end.
So far as I knew no one had coined the phrase ‘the Chinese dream’ before I included it the title of my book, but suddenly and dramatically, as political events unfolded in Beijing, it took on huge significance in China and around the world. When Xi spoke as undisputed leader at the National Party Congress in March 2013 he announced that he intended to promote the ‘Chinese dream.’ This was to replace Hu Jintao’s doctrines of the harmonious society and the scientific path to development. The Chinese dream was to become Xi’s catchphrase; his contribution to Communist orthodoxy. Since then, the phrase the ‘Chinese dream’ has gone global, inspiring all manner of interpretations and millions and millions of words of speculation and commentary. To say that I was surprised by the coincidence between my book title and Xi’s new doctrine would be putting it mildly!
What is Xi’s Chinese dream? Many commentators have highlighted the new leadership’s wish to curb corruption and extravagance. Among ordinary people, these are a source of considerable discontent with the Communist Party and would be top priorities for any incoming leader: they go to the heart of Communist Party legitimacy and therefore the Party’s ability to sustain itself in power in the long term. But curbing corruption and extravagance is hardly an uplifting national ambition, rather less than a star for the whole country to steer by.
Internationally, foreign policy commentators have noted a greater nationalist confidence in Xi’s speeches compared to his predecessors – and more bellicose Chinese behaviour towards their neighbours, particularly Japan in the dispute over the sovereignty of the tiny but strategic Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. These tensions flared up again in April 2012 and remain unresolved. Perhaps, the western commentators say, the Chinese dream is regional or even global domination. China is undoubtedly pursuing a more assertive foreign policy in the East Asia region and will no doubt emphasise its growing significance in international debates in the years to come. Ordinary people support that. They feel the weight of China’s international humiliation since the Opium Wars in the middle of the nineteenth century and would welcome greater national pride and international respect. However, unleashing volatile and uncontrollable nationalist undercurrents could also destabilise the Communist Party and the whole country, not to mention international opinion which might start to question China’s commitment to a ‘peaceful rise’. Pursuing such a high risk strategy for his Chinese dream could turn out very dangerous for Xi. It could suddenly and spectacularly backfire on him and the whole Party.
We must look to domestic policy for the meaning of President Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream. The Party has control over domestic policy and knows their future stands or falls on their social and economic achievements. In his acceptance speech at the Party Congress in November 2012, his first speech after his anointment, Xi said, “our people….yearn for better education, stable jobs, more satisfactory income, greater social security, improved medical and healthcare.” These are precisely the issues highlighted by the Chongqing people who put their wishes on my Wish Tree – and indeed the themes of the chapters of this book!
President Xi Jinping will have to realise this domestic Chinese dream if my assessment of why Chinese people fear the future is to prove too pessimistic. For the sake of ordinary Chinese people, the laobaixing – the old hundred names – I hope I am wrong and Xi Jinping’s hopes prove well-founded. We shall see.