Interlude 2: The Chinese Dream, Whatever That Is

I just saw a propaganda poster on campus that said the following (in translation): “The Chinese dream, the student dream.  Let the students in the Architecture Department strive morning and night to achieve their dream!”

This is, of course, an affirmation of Premier Xi Jinping’s much-touted “Chinese dream,” which no one can articulate, but everyone can believe, thus making it either the most or least effective piece of political propaganda in recent times. Previous slogans for China, such as the Three Represents and the Harmonious Society, were clear enough. The former advocated focusing on three specific elements in society, and the latter was at least clear for those in a subordinate position, it being simply a fancy of way of saying, “Stay in your place and don’t rock the boat.” The “Chinese Dream,” though, is a different kettle of fish. By not in any way articulating what it is, the government has ensured that at least on paper it can’t fail. What would you accuse them of? Not achieving the dream? But they never said what the dream was. It’s a whole lot like the War on Terror, which as comedian David Cross once pointed out made about as much sense, semantically, as declaring a war on frustration or a war on sadness. How would you know if you’d won? There’s no more terror anywhere in the world? All the terrorists are gone? There are no concrete standards by which we might judge the success of the war, so that guarantees we can neither criticize nor rejoice. In essence the Chinese slogan does the same: by pronouncing the existence of a dream, but never defining what it is, you’re essentially telling people to define it however they want. Are you a student? Strive to graduate and get a job! Are you a worker? Strive to get a decent salary! Or let’s just go ahead and rock this thing: if you want a llama, buy that sucker! If you want to play bass for Mastodon, give ‘em a call! We’ll even help you find the phone number! What’s that? Penguin farm? Affirmative! Amateur machine-gunner! Here’s the address of an ammo dump! Or, alternately, just go for what you think you can get. For most people it might even be as simple as a restatement of the American dream, which after decades of materialism can be boiled down to having a comfortable place to live, a few kids, and watch daytime reality TV until your eyeballs shrivel. So the national vision is purely subjective.

It’s also a little sad. After teaching in China for roughly 8 years, I can say for sure that the vast majority of my students have had individual initiative and creativity so beaten out of them by their education system that they are almost incapable of dreaming of anything but an end to their studies and a stable job. And here’s why I say the Chinese Dream could be either the greatest success or greatest failure in political propaganda, because if you defer the terms of the dream to the individual members of your society, and if the members of your society all just want to have a decent home and a decent job, but you can’t provide that, then you’ve failed doubly. First, you’ve failed in enabling your people to think creatively enough to dream at all, and second you’ve failed to provide the means of achieving the only dream you’ve enabled them to have.

In execution it reminds me of what my professors at Nankai used to tell us in class. At the beginning of all our first-year courses as graduate students, each professor would lecture us on the importance of thinking for ourselves, but would then never engage us on any level, staying up at the podium, or behind a desk, and either reading from a book or lecturing us at length on some other topic. But if you want people to think, you can’t just tell them “1-2-3 THINK!”, any more than you can say, “1-2-3 ACHIEVE YOUR DREAM!” All you’ll get will be a bunch of people with the same slogan, but no new thoughts. (Which you could argue is what most governments want anyway.)

But there’s no denying it’s still a brilliant political gamble. Right now what you have is tons of people all taken up with a single word, “dream,” which is, let’s face it, one of the most potent words in any language. And if it’s successful, you’ll have tens of millions of people all repeating it in incredible excitement, without worrying about anything changing, just as you have tens of millions of Americans chanting “freedom!” without questioning either the meaning or application of the term. If it fails, it will fail more spectacularly than any other political maneuver because by making it purely subjective it also guarantees that the individual becomes the ultimate arbiter, and thereby the ultimate judge of whether it succeeds or not.

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