World dialogue on the Chinese dream

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn. [File photo] 

-- Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of How China’s Leaders Think and the biography of former President Jiang Zemin

Ever since CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping announced The Chinese Dream, shortly after his ascension to China’s highest political position in November 2012, The Chinese Dream has stirred hopes and high expectations on the one hand and has provoked questions and wonder on the other. What is clear is that The Chinese Dream has become a high-level organizing principle for President Xi’s leadership, and it is from this grand overarching vision that our conference, World Dialogue on the Chinese Dream, takes its significance.

Many at home and abroad have offered opinions on what The Chinese Dream is, or what it should be, or what it should not be. Chinese scholars and Western China critics may differ in their opinions—even among themselves—but they are allied in recognizing the importance of The Chinese Dream and therefore of analyzing it.

I will not here suggest which elements of The Chinese Dream are more relevant than others or how its diverse facets may interact. My objective, rather, is to suggest a theoretical framework for The Chinese Dream by arraying its content or applications and organizing them into categories and subcategories. I call the results a “taxonomy’, using as analogy the order or structure that scientists impose on the constituents of the biological world for the purpose of understanding it better.

As such, my objective is limited. I do not seek so much to explain The Chinese Dream as to provide categories of which it is composed. This may help others to offer descriptive or prescriptive analysis in a coherent and integrated manner. I would like to see the size and scope of the landscape that The Chinese Dream covers. I would like to answer the foreign critics charge that The Chinese Dream is vague and sloganeering.

I would like to ground The Chinese Dream in a way of thinking that is both theoretically sound and pragmatically applicable. A framework for The Chinese Dream may facilitate a way of thinking, a methodology, to determine what follows from these categories. Though I do not claim that there is anything special about the specific taxonomy I present, I do suggest that the process of developing a taxonomy, irrespective of its specific structure, can help elucidate The Chinese Dream.

In the taxonomy I propose, I have five high-level categories with which to describe and analyze The Chinese Dream: national, personal, historical, global, antithetical. For each I suggest subcategories. Then I show how the remarkable Third Plenary of the 18th CPC Central Committee reinforces The Chinese Dream.

1. National

The “National Chinese Dream” was defined famously by President Xi as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese People”. It is the collective vision of the Chinese nation, described as achieving the "Two 100s": first, the material goal of China becoming a "moderately well-off [xiaogang] society" by about 2020, around the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (2021); second, the modernization goal of China becoming a fully developed nation by about 2050, the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic of China (2049).

"A moderately well-off society" is where all citizens, rural and urban, enjoy high standards of living. This includes doubling the 2010 per capita gross domestic product (approaching US$10,000) by about 2020 and completing urbanization (roughly 1 billion people, about 70 percent of China's population) by about 2030. "Modernization" means China regaining its position as a world leader in science and technology as well as in economics and business; the resurgence of Chinese civilization, culture and military strength; and China participating actively in all areas of human endeavor.

The National Chinese Dream can be seen from a viewpoint of seven interlocking perspectives:

1. Strong China -- economically, politically, scientifically, militarily;

2. Stable China -- freedom from chaos; social confidence;

3. Bountiful China – high standards of living for all citizens;

4. Harmonious China -- amity among social classes and ethnic groups;

5. Civilized China -- equity and fairness, rich culture, high morals;

6. Beautiful China -- healthy environment, low pollution, modern cities, scenic landscapes;

7. Creative China – scientific excellence; artistic elegance; innovative products.

2. Personal

The “Personal Chinese Dream” focuses on the well-being of individual Chinese citizens and thus modifies traditional notions of the primacy of the collective over the individual. The dream of the Personal is balanced with the dream of the National. In fact, the fulfillment of The Personal Chinese Dream constitutes a good part of what it means to fulfill the National Chinese Dream. In other words, to fulfill properly the National Chinese Dream is to fulfill properly the Personal Chinese Dream. Thus the Personal Chinese Dream refutes the foreign stereotype that China sacrifices individuals to serve the purposes of the collective.

The Personal Chinese Dream can be explicated by two subcategories: (i) material or physical well-being, and (ii) mental or psychological well-being.

Material Well-Being encompasses all the necessities of life and assures that all are being well taken care of; these include education, healthcare and retirement in addition to the obvious necessities of safe food, decent housing and public security. Beyond the necessities, material well-being also includes good jobs, rich family lives, access to entertainment, among other facets of life, and to proper protections of personal rights under the law.

Psychological Well-Being can best be explained in terms of “positive psychology”, the science of happiness developed under the leadership of the American psychologist Martin Seligman, who transformed the fuzzy notion of happiness into a scientific discipline, with reproducible results and professional standards.

Positive psychology uses science-based intervention to build thriving individuals, families, and communities. As such, positive psychology aligns with the Chinese Dream. Seligman explains that positive psychology stresses well-being, the content of people’s dreams, and the methods that can help them to realize their dreams. Seligman outlines five pillars of well-being (described with the acronym PERMA): positive emotion (stressing what’s good), engagement (being committed, having passion for tasks), relationships (positive human interactions), meaning (being part of something larger than oneself); and achievement (clear and definable accomplishments). He argues that PERMA (and all positive psychology) is expressed by what free people choose to pursue when not oppressed. Importantly, well-being is broader than happiness, though both ideas seem to correspond to the same Chinese word xingfu. A person with higher well-being has higher success, innovation, spirituality, and harmony. Positive psychology facilitates social stability and harmony. Well-being brings not only personal, emotional benefits, but also moral and social benefits. For example, people with higher well-being are more altruistic. A flourishing person is more likely to help others. Happier people have less racial discrimination, make fewer social comparisons, and are more ready to forgive. In short, higher well-being makes better citizens. A China higher in well-being would be a China higher in creativity. When you are frightened, stressed or depressed, your mind is filled with analytical, critical thinking. When your emotions are more positive, you are better with creative tasks. How to make China’s next generation more creative? Improve their well-being!

Well-being’s rewards are also economic. People with higher well-being have better work performance, less unemployment, and care more for others. They are also healthier and require less medical care. Positive psychology resonates well with traditional Chinese values like interpersonal relationships and morality.

President Xi stressed that “well-being has to be created by diligent work and labor”. This aligns with Seligman’s rationale to expand well-being from the popular yet narrow notion of positive emotion to include engagement and achievement.

The “Chinese dream” is for individual Chinese people to flourish. As the science of flourishing, positive psychology can increase well-being and thus make Chinese people more resilient and fulfilled and Chinese society more stable and prosperous.

3. Historical

The “Historical Chinese Dream” recognizes (i) China’s rich millennia-long civilization with its high culture and seminal achievements, aspiration and expectation, turmoil and trauma, challenge and triumph, and (ii) China’s more recent development of its political theory.

Even though for much of China’s dynastic history, Chinese civilization was a high point in human civilization, there were few periods without some kinds of hardships. A unified, stable, sovereign and peaceful China has long been the goal of the Chinese people and of Chinese leaders.

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