Dreams of a Different China

Jianan Yu/Reuters
A street artist with his portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Dali, China, July 2013

Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially as Xi has pursued a policy of robustly defending territorial claims and called on the United States to explore “a new type of great power relationship.” These actions, unthinkable a decade ago when China was still a much smaller, less important global player, were evidence that Xi intended to realize his dream.

Xi carefully chose the stage where he made his call. It wasn’t at a meeting of parliament or a trip abroad, but during a visit to an exhibition in the National Museum of China. Located on the east end of Tiananmen Square, the museum is a cavernous structure of severe columns adorned with a national crest and a stylized billowing red flag. The architecture’s overtly political themes are reflected in the building’s tumultuous history: since its launch in 1959, the museum has been closed more often than open, as successive leaders have squabbled over what should be presented inside. In its present incarnation, it was redesigned by a German architecture firm to be the world’s largest museum and reopened in 2011.1 One of its permanent exhibitions is the show Xi visited, “The Road to Rejuvenation.”

That show tells a story that every Chinese child learns at school: China was humiliated for a hundred years by outsiders from the mid-nineteenth century onward and, despite brave attempts by well-meaning but misguided patriots in the years after, only really got back on track when the Communists took power in 1949. From there, the country went from strength to strength, the inevitable triumph of Communist will and ideology. It was against this backdrop that Xi declared, “I think that achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest Chinese dream in modern times.”2

Xi’s definition of China’s dream has caused much discussion. While the slogan seems to directly mimic the term “American dream,” it is almost the antithesis of that dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—personal goals that in Xi’s vision are replaced by a collective, national pursuit. The Economist even posited that Xi was echoing a call made a few weeks earlier by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who said that China needed its own dream—its own guiding principle like the American version.3 (Friedman had something more environmentally friendly in mind, hoping that China wouldn’t develop the suburban sprawl and energy appetite of the United States.) Xi’s vision might have disappointed utopians, but as Orville Schell and John Delury point out in their new book, Wealth and Power, this desire for national gloire

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