September 18, 2013, by Tony Hong

The Chinese Dream Controversy

By Angela Wang, Assistant Research Fellow to the Dean of Arts & Education,

At The University of Nottingham Ningbo.

The Chinese Dream has become a blazing topic for months, prominent in discourse within every field (economic, political, entertainment, academic, individual, etc.). Ever since the central government implemented the idea of a Chinese dream, it has become a controversial topic. In this essay I will discuss three aspects that stand out in the current debate of the Chinese dream. 

The first dispute is the originality of the Chinese dream’s popularization; who pioneered the first discussions of its importance? The Economist (May, 2013) observes that “Chinese dream has been discussed in western academic book titles since early 2000.” Recently much attention has been given to a New York Times column writer Thomas Friedman when in October 2012 he released an article called “China Needs its Own Dream”. From the western perspective, Friedman undoubtedly receives credit as the “original trigger” of the “Chinese dream storm”. However, in the eyes of most Chinese people it climbed to the ignition point when China’s new president Xi Jinping leaded up to the National Museum on Nov. 29th, 2012 and proclaimed that “Everyone has their own ideals and pursuits, and everyone has their own dream.”

Another controversy lies in the definition of the term which widely varies among scholars. Basically the definition of the Chinese dream is discussed in the context of the American dream and its influence on post-socialist capitalism China. In his writing, Thomas Friedman (2012) raised the view that the Chinese dream is the American dream (a big car, a big house and McDonald’s Big Macs for all). By comparing the Chinese dream with the American dream one should look no further than cultural imperialism. Herbert Schiller’s cultural imperialism[1] (1973) marks America as the centre of the world’s culture and assumes that this dominating culture will direct global trade, identity, and even developing countries’ national policies which undoubtedly hint the commanding role of American culture in the 20th century. American ideas of freedom, liberty and human rights do cross the border and influence the Chinese (and others’) value and norm. But “Chinese people’s attitude toward American culture is conflicted. They, on one hand, fancy capitalistic ideas, technology and brand names, while on the other hand hate the country’s hegemony through military force.” (Zhu Shi, 2008)

Therefore, it is too cursory to draw a parallel between the Chinese dream and the American dream. One reason is because the two dreams have discrepancies at the most fundamental levels. American dream is more individual oriented since from revolution and religious reform hundreds of years ago American were aware of the individual right. But the Chinese dream as most Chinese media proposed is more about the “collective willingness”. Chinese people did not pay attention to their individual rights till 33 years ago and their value now is still incarnated with Confucius and socialism ideologies and the harmonious relations with their family and country. Another is that “dream” is a timeless issue just as vague as tradition so it is unreasonable to draw an equal line between parent Chinese dream and past American dream. A two-car-garage, white picket fence and a wife and two kids were the American dream 60 years ago. After “9.11”, maybe the American dream is more about security. Likewise, in between the Qing dynasty and the reform of the republic of new China, the Chinese dream underwent metamorphosis and became a strengthened national force which was mainly driven by national humiliation (Opium war, the Rape of Nanking); while at present, the Chinese dream is a harmonious society, to become a rich in cultural sources, and emerge as a new global leader. Thus, even there are certain overlaps between the western and Chinese values the Chinese dream should be defined uniquely.

The last debate on the Chinese dream I would mention in this essay is whether the Chinese dream is a projection of soft power. It seems every tenure of leader in China will appeal to some slogan to exercise its soft power and whip up the nation to get together in order to boom the country’s revival; from Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening up to Jiang Zeming’s “three representatives”, then to Hu Jintao’s “eight honours and eight shames” and “emphasis on the national science”. Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream does just this by emphasizing that Chinese people, from the bottom up, have the right and duty to dream beyond purely economic and social realms. Mr Xi’s Chinese dream not only informs the world that China’s middle class is booming the country’s economy, but also that under the CCP’s leadership, China has been revived from its national humiliation which mirrors professor Rawnsley’s (2013) description of Chinese soft power as [a reconciliation of] the need to project both the economic modernisation of the country and the resonance of traditional cultural themes; while simultaneously trying to explain and justify the continuation of government by the CCP.” In state owned media Chinese dream is discussed in the context of whether or not China’s rise will lead the country becoming a threatening power to the world which further hints that the Chinese dream can be a deliberate soft power policy in the country’s international diplomacy. The “duty and right to dream” and “the nation’s collective will” seems to be tools of soft power indicating that country wants to be recognized as a global superpower and international actor without being treated as a threat or hegemony.

[1] The concept of cultural imperialism today best describes the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system. (Schiller, 1976, p. 9)


  • Colin Sparks. 2012, “Media and Cultural Imperialism Reconsidered”, in Chinese Journal of Communication, 5:3, 281 – 299.
  • G, Rawnsley. 2013, “Chinese Soft Power: Competing Narratives of Modernisation, Culture and Tradition” (unpublished).
  • Thomas Friedman. 2013, “China needs its own dream”, in New York Times, Oct. 2012.
  • 朱氏. 全球化过程中的“文化帝国主义”现象的再透视[J]. 2008.
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